The broadband digital divide is getting worse: UN Broadband Commission

UN broadband commission
Image credit: ITU

Top-level government, business and United Nations leaders have called for global action to ensure broadband Internet access for all or risk that some vulnerable populations could fall deeper into the digital divide.

The leaders came together in New York City at the annual fall meeting of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, held parallel to the 71st Session of the General Assembly of the UN also taking place in New York.

“The membership of this Commission offers an encouraging example of just the kind of multi-stakeholder partnerships we need to achieve the [UN’s] Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs],” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Broadband is a remarkable tool – now we must do more to ensure that all enjoy its benefits. Developing countries face the very real risk of being left behind. I look to this Commission to help ensure that broadband charts a course that includes all humankind, enhances human dignity and serves the global good.”

This call to action was echoed by other Commissioners, who highlighted the role and responsibility of members of the Broadband Commission to work together to respond to the growing risk of an expanding digital divide.

“Our efforts remain vital in ensuring that broadband, and ICTs in general, receive the attention they deserve, in the global development agenda,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, co-chair of the Broadband Commission. “One of the key findings in this year’s State of Broadband Report is the increasing digital divide, not just in terms of connectivity, but also applications. For Africa, and other developing regions, this is a major concern. Our growing and youthful population is an asset, but we have to ensure there is sufficient economic opportunity. Government, private sector, and civil society can partner more efficiently, to facilitate digital entrepreneurship, for the 2030 Agenda and beyond.”

The growing digital gap

Prior to the annual meeting, the Commission issued the 2017 edition of its flagship State of Broadband report on 14 September, a unique global snapshot of broadband network access and affordability, with country-by-country data for over 160 economies worldwide measuring broadband access against key advocacy targets set by the Commission in 2011.

The report confirmed that according to the latest ITU figures, 48% of the global population will be online by the end of 2017, though some 3.9 billion people will still not have access to the Internet – with the digital gap growing between developed and developing countries. According to ITU estimates, Internet penetration in the developing world is projected to reach 41.3% by the end of 2017, while Internet user penetration is projected to reach only 17.5% in Least Developed Countries.

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development was established in 2010 and comprises more than 50 leaders from across a range of government and industry sectors who are committed to actively assisting countries, UN experts and NGO teams to fully leverage the huge potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to drive national SDG strategies in key areas like education, healthcare and environmental management.

Carlos Slim, chairman and chief executive of telecommunications companies Telmex and América Móvil, president of the Carlos Slim Foundation and co-chair of the Broadband Commission, said: “I am very glad that since its establishment seven years ago, the Broadband Commission has developed a more active focus to prioritize bringing connectivity to everyone everywhere, including least developed countries.”

Avoiding a “winner-takes-all” phase of digital development

“This year’s State of Broadband 2017 report highlights several important findings,” said Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General, who serves as co-vice chair of the Commission. “First, there is a suggestion that we are entering a ‘winner takes all’ phase in digital development – digital ‘frontrunner’ countries are moving even further ahead, while developing countries are generally being left behind. Furthermore, gaps in transmission speeds are also increasing. And there is still no visible progress that the digital gender divide is closing. Even in a high-growth industry such as ours, there is still cause for concern. In a few weeks, I’ll address the seventh World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Buenos Aires. My message will be clear: It is our responsibility to bring the power of ICTs to all nations, all people and all segments of society.”

The Commission identified women and girls as particularly vulnerable to being left behind if they are not given broadband access and skills to use technology, in order to benefit from digital resources.

“Today, more than ever, the digital revolution must be a development revolution … a sustainable development revolution. We need broadband to strengthen the sustainability of development efforts,” said Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general, who also serves as co-vice chair. “We need broadband to bridge divides and not deepen them – especially for girls and women. We need broadband that ensures equal access to education, that enhances the quality of learning across the world, because these are the strongest foundations for sustainability and peace.”

It’s not just about access – it’s about network speed

Commissioners also identified the changing face of the digital divide as one that is no longer limited to broadband access, but also to access to quality network speed and digital services, including health, education, financial services.

Rajeev Suri, CEO of Nokia said: “76% of the world’s population lives within access of a 3G signal. Meanwhile, average speeds are increasing steadily around the world. According to Akamai, worldwide, 15 and 25 Mbps broadband adoption rates increased by 33% and 42% year-on-year, respectively. Global average peak connection speed increased 28% year-on-year to 44.6 Mbps for Q1 2017. This means that the definition of the digital divide is evolving, from the original definition of coverage and being connected/unconnected, to being connected with which speed of access. We must also prevent a new digital divide between those who live in the connected world benefiting from use-cases like connected health, connected education and smart transportation, and those without access to the use-cases the Internet of Things can provide.”

New arrivals

Several new Commissioners were welcomed at the meeting by Houlin Zhao including:

  • Amani Abou Zeid, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure & Energy, African Union
  • Andrus Ansip, Vice-President in Charge of Digital Single Market, European Commission
  • Borje Ekholm, CEO, Ericsson
  • Arancha González Laya, Executive Director, International Trade Centre
  • Mukisha Kituyi , Secretary-General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
  • Boris Koprivnikar, Deputy Prime Minister, Slovenia
  • Patrick Masambu, Secretary-General, International Telecommunications Satellite Organization
  • Stephen Spengler, CEO, Intelsat
  • Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme
  • Masahiko Tominaga, Vice-Minister for Policy Coordination (International Affairs), Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan
  • Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu, United NationsUnder Secretary-General and High Representative for Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States.

Policy recommendations

The Commission’s Expert Group, a high-level group comprised of policy makers and regulators, network operators and Internet companies, achieved a milestone with the presentation to Commissioners for their review of a set of policy recommendations for future-proof ICT framework conditions. Once reviewed by the Commission, these recommendations will be made public and can serve to guide policy makers and regulators in their decision-making.

The meeting also included two substantive sessions examining “The Changing Face of the Digital Divide” and “Enabling Digital Entrepreneurship for 2030”.

Four working groups reported on the conclusions of their groups, including the Education group, which released its report Digital Skills for Life and Work; the Technologies in Space and the Upper-Atmosphere group, which released its report Identifying the Potential of New Communications Technologies for Sustainable Development; and the Digital Gender Divide group, which released its report Bridging the Gender Gap in Internet and Broadband Access and Use (all available here). Additionally, three new working groups were created on the topics of Digital Health, Epidemics Preparedness, and Digital Entrepreneurship.

The Commission’s meeting concluded with a special tribute to outgoing UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova for her seven years of committed service to and support of the Commission, since 2010. In her parting words, she reminded the Commissioners of the importance to make “technology work for people”, a hallmark of her commitment to using broadband to improve livelihoods around the world.

The original version of this article first appeared in ITU News

Be the first to comment

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.