Expanding Technologies Fail to Bridge Broadband Divide

  • by José Domingo Guariglia (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Known as the broadband divide, this gap underscores the many obstacles in the process to provide developing countries with access to information, even while on a global scale ICT development continues to improve.

'Measuring the Information Society 2011', this year's version of an annual report released by the U.N. agency International Telecommunication Union (ITU), compared accessibility, capabilities and cost of ICTs in developed and developing countries between 2008 and 2010.

Broadband access is indispensable to implementing e-government projects and meeting the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Gary Fowlie, head of the ITU liaison office, told IPS.

The MDGs are a set of eight goals to be accomplished by 2015 and include universal access to education, gender equality and female empowerment, improved child and maternal health, and reducing poverty and HIV/AIDS.

'Broadband will permit a greater use of the spectrum that allows e-health services, e-education, e- governance services. It makes it possible to deliver health care by distance,' Fowlie said. However, in many low-income countries, broadband remains unaffordable.

Increasing access to broadband will help countries meet the MDGs by making technology more affordable and widespread, Hamadoun Touré, ITU secretary-general, explained.

Greater global connectivity

The report's conclusions relied on the ICT Development Index (IDI), which gauges developments in uses and capabilities of ICTs in 152 countries, and the ICT Price Basket (IPB), which measures changes in prices of ICTs in 165 countries.

South Korea led countries in ICT development, with European countries taking eight out of the top 10 spots. For Fowlie, the explanation was simple. 'South Korea has been a leader in broadband technology and many European countries have national broadband plans and mature regulatory systems. They have homogenous population in small lands,' he told IPS.

He emphasized the importance of government regulation to ensuring that connectivity reached even remote areas, noting that allowing the private sector to control connectivity might create divisions between urban and rural areas or different genders and ages.

'The government can put some criteria in the delivery of the services… It is about good governance and regulatory oversight by the government,' he added.

Developing countries were the ones that grew more in terms of access to and implementation of technologies. In fact, Africa had the highest mobile growth rate, but it was also the region with the lowest scores in the development index. The cost of technologies and the lack of interest on the part of authorities were the main causes of these disparities.

'The cost remains an issue and that's why it is important to have national broadband plans,' said Fowlie, who recommended a strategy combining public access to technologies, an effective system of operating licenses and promoting investment by the private sector.

The report stated that income levels and ICT development are related, but experiences on the ground have shown that governmental action and promoting technologies can accelerate ICT development.

Such a phenomenon occurred in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, countries whose ICT development levels were higher than expected given their income levels.

The ICT price basket, which combines the average cost of fixed telephone lines, the cost of having a mobile phone and the price of broadband internet services, showed that the average price of ICT services has decreased by 18 percent globally between 2008 and 2010, and by even more in broadband internet services (52 percent).

The prevalence of mobile phones has increased in many developing countries where poor infrastructure limits the expansion of fixed telephone lines. In developed countries, mobile prevalence is higher than 100 percent.

The 'mobile miracle' has provided the most disadvantaged people in the world with access to ICTs, Touré has said, noting that efforts to expand broadband internet accessibility should seek to emulate this success.

ICTs in politics

Two previous world summits on the information society have taken place — one in Geneva in 2003 and another in Tunis in 2005.

After the last summit, which focused on internet governance, participating countries noted with satisfaction the 'increasing use of ICT by governments to serve citizens and encourage countries that have not yet done so to develop national programmes and strategies for e-government'.

The very principles to which these countries pledged their commitment at the summit are the same ones that have been tested with the latest revolutions and uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Countries reaffirmed their 'commitment to the freedom to seek, receive, impart and use information, in particular, for the creation, accumulation and dissemination of knowledge' and committed to 'protect and respect the provisions for privacy and freedom of expression'.

Yet governments like Tunisia and Egypt tried to block internet access during the protests in their respective countries, violating Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states everyone has the right 'to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers'.

These events have proved that despite disparities, trying to control or reduce the impact of ICTs in the world is no longer easy, Fowlie believed.

'The ICTs gave a way to share frustrations, and citizens could use that information to improve. Trying to control access to ICT is not so easy anymore. People are going to find a way.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service