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Interview: Hamadoun Touré of the ITU

08 September 2010

ITU broadband commission to put development strategy to world leaders at UN assembly

Read more: ITU International Telecommunication Union Broadband Development UN United Nations

The Broadband Commission for Digital Development, created by ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré, is able to put forward its ideas to the UN general assembly in New York. The ideas of a group including Ben Verwaayen of Alcatel-Lucent, Carlos Slim, Jeffrey Sachs and Mo Ibrahim will be worth hearing
Hamadoun Touré: We want countries to have the right policies
in place and show the vision. Then investment will come at the
national level 

Hamadoun Touré and a commission formed of 56 industry and political leaders are about to tell the United Nations that it’s a realistic objective to connect everyone in the world to broadband.
The Broadband Commission for Digital Development, whose members include César Alierta, CEO of Telefónica, Cisco’s John Chambers, Sun Yafang, chair of Huawei, and Ericsson boss Hans Vestberg, will be calling for a sustained effort by governments and investors across the world to ensure those still out of range of broadband can be connected.
"The commission wants to set some targets for 2015," says Touré, the secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union, in his third interview with Global Telecoms Business. Earlier interviews are here and here.
He set up the commission earlier in 2010 with Irina Bokova, director general of Unesco which, like the ITU, is a United Nations organisation. They recruited 56 of the industry’s great and good who since then have met and worked online to produce recommendations that will be submitted to the UN and its secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, at the UN general assembly in late September.
Touré and Bokova invited Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, to chair the commission. "He accepted only if there was a private sector co-chair," says Touré. Telmex boss Carlos Slim Helú — who rivals Microsoft founder Bill Gates for the role of being the richest person in the world — is the other co-chair.
Touré invited the rest of the members. No one needed a second phone call, though one — John Chambers of Cisco, smiles Touré — almost missed the deadline for acceptance. "I was pleased that people of this calibre accepted the invitation to join," he says.
Members of the group have been working via online forums to produce their ideas for the 2010 UN general assembly, which will be reviewing the millennium development goals — a set of objectives adopted by the international organisation 10 years ago.
Meeting in Geneva
They’ve met just once in person — in Geneva, the headquarters of the ITU, on July 11, while most of the world was watching Spain beat the Netherlands at the World Cup final from Johannesburg.
"Sunil Mittal from Bharti had a ticket for the final, but he was with us," says Touré. The meeting took a break to watch the match on TV. "President Kagame is a great fan. We watched on TV together."
How did they all work together? "I like clashes of ideas," he says. "From friction comes light. We need to find compromises sometimes. All of these people have been successful in different areas. Getting them to channel all their energies in the same direction is a big challenge."
Touré is the first head of the ITU to come from the private sector, having been an executive in ICO Global Communications in the mid 1990s before heading to Geneva. And he welcomes the role of the private sector in investing in telecommunications.
"The ITU is in a very good position," he says. "We have 192 country members — the same as the UN itself — and more than 700 private sector members. We have a very long tradition of working with the private sector. There is a complementarity. The two can work together."
Private sector investment "is why the mobile sector has been successful", says Touré. "This can be replicated in broadband. Governments need long-term investment in infrastructure and so the private sector will come and invest."
How much? "We haven’t done the exercise," he admits. "We want countries to have the right policies in place and show the vision. Then investment will come at the national level."
He shows the precedent of the ITU’s Connect Africa conference in 2007, held in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, under Kagame’s patronage. "The private sector pledged $55 billion investment — investment, not donations. Of that, $22 billion has already been invested and my prediction now is that investment will be more than $70 billion over the next five years." See here for GTB report of the decisions there.
Touré, born in Mali in sub-Saharan Africa, adds: "I’m not going to beg. I’m from a poor country. I’ve begged enough. I’m not going to do it any more."
Targets for 2015
So what will the commission report in late September? "The commission wants to set some targets for 2015," he says. "These are very practical people. It’s good to see how they want to cooperate."
He sees the commission as "a tool to accelerate progress", he says. "The second decade of the millennium will be defined by mobile broadband." And it’s particularly appropriate in today’s economic climate: "ICT is one of the things to help us out of the crisis," he adds.
"It’s not just about fast web browsing. Through e-health, e-education, e-government, smart grids, smart transport systems and much more, broadband will power economic and social progress in the 21st century."
The ITU’s figures show that in western Europe, North America and a few other places in the world, fixed broadband penetration is high: around 30 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. But in Brazil, Russia, India and China — the so-called BRIC countries that many people expect to power the next stage of economic growth — penetration is much lower, at around seven or eight per 100 for three of them, and less than one in India.
And while the average British, German, Australian or American customer spends around 1% of their income on broadband, in China it’s more like 7% of income.
In many of the world’s poorest countries, it’s even worse: fixed broadband access costs more than 100% of average monthly income, according to ITU figures.
But, given the right circumstances, progress can be fast, he notes — pointing to countries such as South Korea and Malaysia. "They were developing countries 25 years ago." By sharing experience "that 25 years can be shortened".
For Touré it’s a personal and political campaign: he is seeking re-election as secretary general of the ITU at the next plenipotentiary conference, which takes place in October, and he wants to continue with his agenda of change in what was once a less than dynamic organisation. When nominations closed in early September he was the only candidate for secretary general.
Conference and exhibition
Another change he’s wanting the October meeting to consider will affect the ITU’s exhibition and conference strategy. He wants to make ITU Telecom World annual, alternating between a fixed location and other places around the world after the 2011 event, when it is due to be held in Geneva.
Touré is putting a business plan together that would mix a fixed location every two years — not necessarily Geneva — with a selection of different places around the world.
"It’s much more sensible to make it annual," he says. "Marketing teams have big difficulties with the existing three-year cycle."
The exhibition and conference, which will be 40 years old in 2011, has slumped after the peak Geneva events in 1999 and 2003. For many years it was held every four years, but it moved to Hong Kong in 2006, and came back to Europe in 2009.
ITU Telecom World 2011 will take place on October 24-28 next year, back in Geneva. After that, the organisation has made no commitment to keep the event there, which is where the organisation is based. The ITU plans to ask cities to tender to host the event.
"We want the event to be in the same place every two years," says Touré, "but in the alternate years it will be held in different places."
At the same time the ITU is planning to drop the regional events that it has held from time to time, hoping that all of these can be replaced by the biannual globetrotting event alternating with a fixed venue.
"Members want to have rotation between locations," Touré says. But they also want to be able to re-use stands and plots in a regularly used venue — hence the attempt to compromise.
But he also wants to change the conference that has always been an essential item of the event — something that was central to it in the days when most telecoms operators were state controlled and the gathering a meeting place, under UN auspices, of ministers and officials.
Touré wants to attract more world leaders to conferences. "In 2009 we had eight heads of state and the UN secretary general. In 2011 I’m expecting 15 heads of state," he says.
Davos style
Instead of set-piece speeches, the style "will be more like Davos", the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum held in the Swiss ski resort at the end of each January, attended by presidents, prime ministers and industry leaders.
"We want more sessions with business leaders and heads of state," says Touré about the next ITU Telecom event.
A decision on Touré’s plans will be put to the October meeting of the ITU’s members.
"We will invite bids for venues as soon as we have agreed," says Touré. Recent events have made a loss, he admits, but the ITU is still using its surplus earned during the peak days.
And the Broadband Commission for Digital Development? Touré says that members want it to continue to operate after the members report to the UN in late September 2010. "The commissioners are saying that it should continue," he says. "I’m not sure how yet: there isn’t a budget."
But, if the general assembly decides to act on the report, there will surely be a role for the commission to continue to review progress. And a forum where Paul Jacobs of Qualcomm and Paul Otellini of Intel can continue in dialogue with the likes of Helen Clark of the UN Development Programme and Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel prizewinner who founded the Grameen Bank, must surely be worth keeping. GTB 
Further reading

Earlier GTB interviews with Hamadoun Toure: here and here.

Broadband Commission for Digital Development
International Telecommunication Union


Hamadoun Touré, Rwandan president Paul Kagame and
Telmex head Carlos Slim discuss broadband development
at the commission’s July 11 meeting 

Broadband Commission for Digital Development

A group of international experts comprising leading figures from a range of industry and public sectors

Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda
Carlos Slim Helú, chairman and CEO of Telmex, Telcel, and América Móvil

Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of ITU
Irina Bokova, director general of Unesco

Telecoms and IT industry
César Alierta, CEO of Telefónica
Orlando Ayala, chairman of emerging markets at Microsoft
John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco
Mo Ibrahim, founder and chairman of Mo Ibrahim Foundation and former head of Celtel
Paul Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm
Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of Bharti Airtel
Denis O’Brien, chairman of Digicel
Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel
Sun Yafang, chair of Huawei Technologies
Ben Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent
Hans Vestberg, president and CEO of Ericsson
Wang Jianzhou, chairman and former CEO of China Mobile

Media industry
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group
Vint Cerf, VP and chief internet evangelist at Google
Ingrid Deltenre, director general of the European Broadcasting Union
Yoshinori Imai, president of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union and executive VP of NHK
Youssou N’Dour, musician and UNICEF goodwill ambassador
Martin Sorrell, group chief executive of WPP

Banking and development funding
Walter Fust, former director-general of the Swiss Development Corporation
Reza Jafari, chairman and CEO of E-Development International
Klaus Leisinger, president and managing director of Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development
Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank
Jay Naidoo, chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa
Muhammad Yunus, managing director of Grameen Bank and Nobel Laureate

Politics and regulation
Ali Abbasov, Azerbaijan minister of communications and information technologies
Stephen Conroy, Australia’s minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy
Ricardo Ehrlich, minister of education and culture for Uruguay
Julius Genachowski, chairman of the US FCC
Ivo Ivanovski, minister of information society for Macedonia
Kim Seang-tae, president of South Korea’s National Information Society Agency
Leong Keng Thai, deputy chief executive and director general (telecoms and post) at Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore
Neelie Kroes, European commissioner for European digital agenda
Suvi Lindén, minister of communications for Finland
Safuneitu’uga Pa’aga Neri, minister of communications and information technology for Samoa
Sam Pitroda, adviser to prime minister of India on public information infrastructure and innovations
Shashi Tharoor, member of Indian parliament

Academic world
Milagros Del Corral, former director general of the National Library of Spain
Bruno Lanvin, executive director of Insead’s eLab
Speranza Ndege, director of the Institute of Open, Distance & e-Learning at Kenyatta University
Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the UN secretary-general
Adama Samassékou, president of the International Council of Philosophy and Human Sciences

International organisations
Kathy Calvin, CEO of UN Foundation
Choi Soon-hong, chief IT officer at the UN
Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Programme and former prime minister of New Zealand
Edouard Dayan, director-general of the Universal Postal Union
Cheick Sidi Diarra, under secretary-general at the UN and special adviser on Africa
Amir Dossal, executive director of the UN Office for Partnerships
Angel Gurría, secretary-general of OECD
Francis Gurry, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization
Esteban Pacha-Vicente, director general of International Mobile Satellite Organization
Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general, UN Conference on Trade and Development
Christian Roisse, executive secretary of Eutelsat IGO
Sha Zukang, under secretary-general of UN department of economic and social affairs
José Toscano, director general and CEO of International Telecommunications Satellite Organization