Creating Solutions For Universal Internet Connectivity

The Broadband Commission for Digital Development released a new report – The State of Broadband 2012: Achieving Digital Inclusion – just prior to this year’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.  It is their first ever country-by-country analysis of broadband deployment worldwide.  We had a chance to talk with Dr. Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson at the Social Good Summit following a panel they were on about the future of broadband and digital equality.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and ITU formed the Broadband Commission in 2010 to look at ways to improve connectivity.  The Commission wants to achieve global digital inclusion by 2015.

“There are over six million mobile subscriptions worldwide and three quarters of those are in the developing world,” Vestberg said.  “There are one million broadband subscriptions right now.  By 2017 this will grow to five billion.”

The report shows that there are 119 countries that have some kind of national broadband policy in place.  However, more needs to be done by all countries.  The reports says that governments should “promote digital culture and economic activities that are creating new jobs” and encourage the development of more online universities and better infrastructure to support tech innovation.

“The question here is whether broadband is a luxury or a basic human right,” said Touré.  “I believe it is a basic human right.”

The report stresses the impact technology has on achieving the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).  It cites World Bank statistics, suggesting that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration could boost GDP by 1.38 percent in low- and middle-income countries.  Better broadband deployment can also expedite improved health care, education, gender equality and sustainability.

Most people use their mobiles for voice calls, but many don’t have access to data. High-speed 3G and 4G technologies are growing in use, but the report says better investment is needed quickly in developing smart technologies to increase data access.  Currently, nearly 15 percent of users in the world have smartphones, and more than half of them in the United States. The reports suggests that carriers need to offer customers the best quality and affordable prices on multiple devices.

Touré said that private sector ideas can play a role in development, which is generally a role associated with governments and non-profits, and practice “the rule of business” by reinvesting in the countries they are helping.

“For 50 years of independence in Africa, our development agenda was based on three words – health, assistance and charity, and it did not work,” he said.  “If you try something for 50 years and it doesn’t work, for God’s sake, you try something else.  There’s nothing wrong with making profits.”

The report shows that ICT contributes to seven percent of Africa’s GDP, which is higher than the world average.  This is possibly because mobiles offers access to services and products that are generally available in their original form in Western nations, like newspapers and banking.  So, of course, the social and economic value of a mobile is higher in Africa that anywhere else.

However, the report makes it clear that there isn’t a “one size fits all” method to closing the broadband gap and it recommends a cost-benefit approach to broadband deployment in individual countries.

For the last decade there have been efforts by many emerging markets like India, South Africa and Brazil to develop connectivity solutions.  We stumbled upon an ambitious effort by a group of graduate students at Singularity University to make universal connectivity a reality for one billion within the next decade – one computer lab at a time.

Their project is called WiFli, which, according to Fast Company,”wants to use empty wireless frequency spectra (Google once considered a version of this idea, and tried to buy rights to a wireless frequency band that was once used by television broadcasters) along with cheap hardware to bring the Internet to the world’s poor on the cheap. ‘[We want] Internet connectivity at low costs for the disenfranchised. It’s a way of stopping poverty and job loss,’ says team member Federico Pistono.”

So far since the project started this summer, WiFli has connected a computer lab in the Philippines, a country where two-thirds of its 100 million citizens lack Internet access.  Hopefully, WiFli will incorporate the findings in the broadband report to better address mobile broadband connectivity.

However, there not only needs to be a change in addressing better connectivity, but also recognizing the growing popularity of mobile devices over personal computers within the tech industry.  A recent article in the Washington Post highlights the problems companies like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Intel are having with adapting to rapidly-changing consumer trends.

…Americans used 114 million smartphones in August, up from 101 million in the beginning of the year, according to comScore, which tracks the industry. The percentage of Web pages viewed from mobile devices reached 13 percent, up from 7 percent a year earlier. Worldwide shipments of personal computers, meanwhile, fell 8.6 percent in the third quarter compared with 2011, according to research firm International Data.

“That shows just how quickly this shift is happening, and it seems to be accelerating,” said Andrew Lipsman, vice president for industry analysis at comScore.

Consumers use tablet computers in ways that are not profoundly different from personal computers, surfing Web sites, seeing ads and making purchases. Smartphones mark a clearer departure. Web searches on such devices tend to be more contextual, relating to where users are at the moment…

If more people start discussing and addressing these trends now, universal Internet connectivity could surely be made possible in the near future.

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