Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) – the Internet in particular – can offer a magnificent range of opportunities for those who have access to them. But while 4.4 billion people remain offline, there is a danger of a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Just look at the comparison between the developed and the developing world. Last year, almost 75% of the developed world was using the Internet, compared with fewer than 28% of the developing world. Research indicates that investment in ICTs can bring about higher productivity, lower costs, new economic opportunities, job creation, innovation and increased trade. ICTs also help to provide better services in health and education, and strengthen social cohesion.
Let’s consider what we want in the online world. The Internet should be free and open, and provide relevant content, in local languages. Access should be affordable and citizens should be able to acquire the necessary skills to make use of online services and content. Although great progress has been made in meeting these objectives, work is still required to bring the rest of the world online. Part of the solution lies in technology.
Until recently, high-speed access to the Internet depended largely on the fixed-line network. This is no longer true. New technologies – wired, but particularly wireless – have revolutionized much more than just the voice market: by the end of 2013 there will be almost 7 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions. That’s an average of one for every person on the planet. Right now, more than 90% of the global population is already covered by a mobile-cellular network.
By the end of 2013 we expect the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions to hit 2 billion, while more than half of the world’s people will live within reach of a mobile-broadband signal. At the same time, wired networks – including fibre and cable – are increasingly bringing ultra-high speeds right to users’ doorsteps. Fixed-wireless technologies that complement mobile and wired networks have also reached new levels of sophistication, speed and range. International Internet bandwidth is abundantly available (albeit not equally distributed) and recent developments in cloud computing, combined with new low-cost terminals, will facilitate affordable and secure access for all.
Technological changes in the 21st century have the potential to allow everyone – and, increasingly, everything – to become part of the global information society. Therefore, it’s not technology that is preventing us from promoting access to the Internet; if anything, it is helping to bring everyone into the online world.
This is a solution that governments, together with the private sector, must grasp and fully exploit. This will require a clear regulatory environment that fosters private investment, full competition and privatization; targeted public policies to connect the unconnected; and public-private partnerships. Governments must commit to these basic rules, set clear and ambitious targets and benchmark progress.
At the national and international levels, the Post-2015 Development Agenda must recognize the potential of ICTs, and especially broadband, in enhancing access – particularly for vulnerable populations – to education, healthcare and other public services; to information, finance and knowledge; and to recognize the role of ICTs in protecting the environment; mitigating natural disaster risks; ensuring sustainable use of natural resources and sustainable food production; and for women’s empowerment.
ICTs – and in particular broadband technologies – are a long-term investment in development. The developing world should have the same access and benefits as industrialized countries. If we are all to share in the future of ICTs and the Internet, we need to bring about the conditions that can make this happen.
This post is part of a series from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet. You can read more expert views here
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Author: Hamadoun I. Touré is Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Geneva and is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet
Image: Participants during a “Campus Party” Internet users gathering in Brazil REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker