Technology

UN reveals global disparity in broadband access

Outsourcing centre in Kenya
Africa is now encircled with high-speed internet cables

The global disparity in fixed broadband access and cost has been revealed by UN figures.

The Central African Republic is the most expensive place to get a fixed broadband connection, costing nearly 40 times the average monthly income there.

Macao in China is the cheapest, costing 0.3% of the average monthly income.

Niger becomes the most expensive place to access communication technologies, when landlines and mobiles are also taken into account.

"Access to broadband in an affordable manner is our greatest challenge," Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), told BBC News.

The statistics were highlighted ahead of the UN 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York on 19 September.

Remote care

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of targets intended to reduce global poverty and improve living standards by 2015.

Specific goals target education, fighting disease and promoting gender equality.

Access to communications technology is a part of one of the targets.

With five years to go until the deadline to achieve the goals, progress remains uneven. Some countries have achieved many of the goals, while others - mostly in the developing world - may not realise any.

Many development experts question how the goals will be achieved and how they will be paid for. Some even question whether the approach is necessary or helpful.

But Dr Toure said that he believed technologies such as broadband could be used to "accelerate" progress on the goals and help countries achieve them.

Mobile phones have proliferated throughout Africa and the world

"Unfortunately many observers will say that we run the risk of not meeting the goals. But I think the focus should be on how we meet the goals," he said.

"I am putting ICT [Information and Communication Technologies] as an opportunity of meeting the goals."

In particular, he said, broadband and connectivity could be used to develop e-health and e-education programmes.

He said broadband would allow people in rural and remote areas to access "state of the art" health facilities and doctors.

"You will also be able to ensure that students around the world will have access to the best universities at their fingertips," he said.

"That can only be done if [connectivity] is accessible and affordable."

Claire Godfrey, senior policy advisor for Oxfam, agreed that technology could help accelerate progress on the MDGs but said "the root causes of poverty must be addressed first", including "access to clean water, adequate food, free healthcare and education".

"Rich countries' governments need to meet their aid commitments, with sustainable, well-targeted and predictable aid and they need to help poorer countries to make health care and education free," she told BBC News.

Dr Toure said there had always been a debate about where the focus should lie.

"Do you have health as a priority or ICT? Do you have food as a priority or ICT? Do you have education as a priority or ICT?

"My answer to that is that ICT is a tool for all of those, for access at the lowest cost."

The ITU estimates that fixed broadband penetration is below 1% in many of the world's poorest countries, whilst access costs can be more than 100% of monthly average incomes.

By contrast, in the world's most developed economies, around 30% of people have access to broadband at a cost of less than 1% of their income.

"We have big disparities," said Dr Toure.

As a result, in many poorer countries cheaper mobile communications have become the dominant way of accessing information.

Innovative projects have been set up to deliver healthcare and other key services such as banking via mobile and text message.

The ITU estimates that there are currently 5 billion mobile subscribers in the world.

However, the number of subscribers can be misleading as some people have more than one phone.

Even so, Dr Toure said that he believed there would be "global connectivity by 2012" with everyone in the world able to access mobile communications. But access to broadband, remained key, he said.

"We are no longer talking about the digital divide in terms of telephony. We are trying to avoid a broadband divide."

Mobile broadband was part of the solution he said, but the radio spectrum used for services was ultimately a finite resource.

"Fixed broadband will continue to be meaningful because of the bandwidth capabilities that it gives you," he said.

Dr Toure is trying to encourage all countries to have a framework that enshrines broadband as a public service to which every citizen should have access.

Currently more than 30 countries have agreed.

"Access to broadband - access to information - should be a universal human right," he said.

He says it is then up to profit-making companies to do the rest.

"Governments should put the right regulatory framework in place and leave it to the private sector to invest," he said.

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