Getting Connected

First published in Qatar Today, December 2013

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A new report identifies what governments can do to ensure that everyone can benefit from broadband.

Last year, according to statistics published recently by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 250 million people came online for the first time. As a result, it is estimated that 40% of the world’s population will be online by the end of 2013.

Of these, 5% are “digital natives” – a generation networked aged 15-24 years with five or more years of online experience. These 363 million digital natives represent 30% of the world’s youth, with the figure rising to an astounding 86% in developed countries.

Collectively, this sounds like a lot, but it still leaves 1.1 billion households or 4.4 billion people – who are still offline.

It is against this backdrop that US computer programmer and internet entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg announced a global partnership – Internet.org – with the aim of getting everyone online. Founder members of the initiative which will focus on mobile and reducing the data needed by apps and other online tools included Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung.

This move follows the recent launch of “Project Loon” by another tech giant, Google, which uses high-altitude balloons to help fill coverage gaps, offering a way to connect people in rural and remote areas who do not have the means to enjoy internet access.

The focus on mobile announced by Internet.org should be seen in the context of a market where mobile broadband has already surpassed fixed-line broadband in a ratio of almost 3:1. Globally, there are an estimated 6.8 billion mobile subscriptions across the planet.

And for many people who are not currently connected to the Internet, particularly in the developing world, mobile will be their first route to getting online. According to a new report by the Broadband Commission: “Over 80% of broadband is expected to be mobile by 2016 and many people’s first and only access to the Internet will be via a mobile device.”

The 76-page document “Transformative Solutions for 2015 and Beyond”  talks of “the game changing potential of mobile broadband,” placing it in the context of the potentially positive effects broadband can have on people, environment and society.

Produced by the Broadband Commission’s Task Force on Sustainable Development, the report seeks to outline the role that ICT can play in the context of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. Says Task Force leader Hans Vestberg , CEO and President Ericsson: “We see so many opportunities for broadband to transform all aspects of society, technology evolves faster than policy, and we wanted to make a concerted effort to do everything we could to raise awareness of the potential.”

To support this view, the document included case studies from five countries – Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Rwanda, and Sweden – to show how broadband goals and wider development ambitions can be aligned, as well as offering ten recommendations which, Task Force felt, could meet the ambitious goals around issues such as improved health and well-being outcomes, curbing human-induced climate change and empowering inclusive and resilient  cities.

Not surprisingly, the authors note in particular a number of ways in which “mobile broadband is delivering far-reaching social and economic benefits in the form of healthcare, education, retail, payments, banking, public services and improved productivity”.

Examples of where this activity is already taking place include the Kenyan-originated mobile banking tool M-Pesa and mobile money services provided by Ooredoo, Qatar National Bank and others, as well as education services such as BBC Janala which delivers English lessons via mobile phones in Bangladesh.

What may be more surprising, and less well known, are the examples included in the report which the authors feel  can support wider development issues such as poverty reduction and food security, or efforts to tackle gender and youth issues, or the promotion of good governance.

Many of these factors are closely interlinked. The report notes, for example, the synergy between poverty reduction and food security by outlining how ICT can be used to “increase monitoring of food production and distribution systems to manage supply and demand”.

Alongside this it also notes the role of ICT in promoting better health outcomes and in increasing literacy. These components can also play a role in lifting people out of poverty, along with new employment opportunities and environmental sustainability.

As a result, it can be difficult to look at any of the report’s overarching goals (like Goal 5: Achieve health and well-being at all ages, or Goal 6: Improve agriculture systems and raise rural prosperity) in isolation.

The report acknowledges that these proposals are “hugely ambitious”, and notes: “It will require fundamental transformation of food, energy, transport and production and consumption systems to stay within natural resource limits and manage climate change. And it will depend on strong partnerships, shared vision and firm commitment to pool the necessary skills, knowledge and resources to make it happen.”

Of course it may take some time for means to deliver these goals and recommendations to manifest themselves, but Professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the Broadband Commissioners, argues that this will be possible only through the adoption of a multi-stakeholder approach.

“Any issue in sustainable development – clean energy, resilient cities and sustainable agriculture – will require public-private partnerships. PPPs are needed for 21st–century infrastructure, R&D and social fairness,” he says, predicting that they will become a key tool of sustainable development for 2015 and beyond.

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