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The Next Stage of the Broadbanding of the World

The UN Broadband Commission—which I assisted in establishing and to which I am special advisor—is now in its fifth year. Set up by the two UN agencies, UNESCO and ITU, it received the support of 50 leading international people such as government ministers, heads of a range of UN and associated organisations, and CEOs of leading private industry companies. Overall it is a public-private partnership. It is chaired by the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and Carlos Slim from Mexico.

The Commission has been instrumental in spreading the message of the important social and economic benefits that are delivered by broadband (and ICT in general), and as a result 140 countries around the world now have a national broadband plan. The Commission established its credibility through the publication of a large number of authoritative reports on the application of broadband for the national benefit and it has built a strong team of people who can assist in international lobbying and national mentoring.

Looking back, significant progress can also be seen within organisations such as, for example, UNESCO and the World Bank. Five years ago broadband hardly featured in their programs, but broadband and ICT are now front and centre as tools for social and economic developments.

Nevertheless a great deal of work still needs to done to ensure horizontal action within these organisations—their organisational structures are often not well-suited to the development of holistic programs.

It has been estimated that to connect the 4 billion people that currently do not have broadband access to the internet could cost as much as $1 trillion dollars; but if this can be addressed in a holistic way these costs could drop to perhaps as low as $200 billion.

However at the 11th meeting of the Commission at UNESCO in Paris last week the discussion focused on the fact that the world is moving on, that in general the global lobbying has done its job, and that the Commission will now have to take the next steps forward.

These steps are not straightforward because the whole issue of social and economic development is complex. Broadband access, and ICT in general, can only do their job if a range of basic elements is in place—stable government, good governance, secure environment that can be trusted by the users, a strong focus on eliminating corruption and in general the availability of good and transparent financial, legal and administrative structures. In addition, translating access and information into knowledge requires significantly more work.

In countries where these elements are in place internet penetration has increased over the last decade, from less than 10% to 60% and 70%.

However, in the 49 least developed countries, where most of these structures are not in place, penetration remains under 10%. These include several countries where civil war and terrorism are rife and where corruption is the norm rather than the exception. It is estimated that these failed, or partly failed, states (or regions within certain states) account for 10%-20% of the people and that very little can be achieved with broadband or ICT unless the basic elements mentioned above are in place.

In between these two groups is a large number of countries that need more help to move broadband further.

In these countries having a national broadband plan doesn’t necessarily mean that it is being actively implemented. Unless there is strong leadership from the top very little happens beyond pilots and projects. Countries where governments put a strong focus on a holistic approach are often doing exceptionally well. These include India, China, Malaysia, Chile, Rwanda and many others—in fact further progress there is now unstoppable.

The Commission is considering a range of actions. Key areas where further developments will greatly benefit their societies are education and healthcare; both these sectors have greatly disappointed in embracing ICTs to transform their organisations so as to be able to more efficiently and effectively distribute their services to their communities. Back in 2000 the UN set a goal that by 2015 all schools should be linked to the internet; the reality, however, is that perhaps as many as half the schools in the developing economies are still not connected.

Unfortunately these sectors are notoriously reactionary and siloed, often with archaic organisational structures that strenuously resist change. The Commission could concentrate on these sectors to see if progress can be speeded up. At the same time it is very clear that ICTs on their own won’t do the job. Action plans will need to be developed in the context of local governance, policies and politics, and local cultures and traditions. This also requires a change of the ICT industry involved in developing technology plans for these countries and regions.

It was also argued that in order to break through these silos, instead of trying to apply broadband and ICT to assist these sectors to transform themselves, it would perhaps be better to actually use broadband and ICT to develop radically new systems, structures, products and services. As a matter of fact, the development of health-related applications and wearable technologies is a clear indication that the world is not waiting around for these sectors to change—wherever possible people will bypass those inflexible systems.

As the meeting took place at UNESCO, its Director General Irina Bokova used the opportunity to organise a meeting between the Commission and the UNESCO Ambassadors of the member countries.

In its discussion with governments and other authorities, the Commission is often preaching to the converted (Ministers for Communications, Regulators, ICT advisers, etc), so connecting with other decision-makers in sectors such as education and healthcare will lead to a far better ecosystem being developed that will hopefully result in more local experts on the ground—who can act as agents of change—to help their countries to further develop the benefits of broadband. Further work will be done to establish such structures.

The Commission also expressed serious concerns about the very high level of unemployment among people aged between 19 and 29 years—in many countries between 30%-40% (and not just in developing economies). A lost generation like this means a lost opportunity for ICT-based developments, as it is this particular age group that can contribute most to such developments. UNESCO is working on programs to address this issue.

In the meantime those who have fully embraced broadband and ICTs and have created policies that will encourage strategic use of these tools are moving in the direction of fully-integrated structures such as smart communities, smart cities and smart nations. China now has many cities with smart city plans in place, Singapore has a smart nation plan and Barcelona—the city where I will report from next—receives awards year after year for being the leading smart city in the world, and consistently appears in the top ten list of global smart cities.

Here we are talking about LTEA—weaving 4G and WiFi together, 5G developments for M2M/IoT, open government, connected information management, big data, cloud computing and so on—all issues that the Broadband Commission discussed and will take on board in the next five years.

Data management is also seen as essential to get the much-needed hard evidence that can show that broadband and ICT do indeed have measurable positive social and economic outcomes.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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