Hamadoun Touré: Widespread broadband access will allow
us to address and help resolve many of the most pressing
issues facing a more populous, ageing world
Over the past decade we have made astonishing progress in bringing the benefits of information and communication technologies — ICTs — to most of the world’s people. There are now well over five billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide, and more than two billion people have access to the internet. Mobile cellular penetration exceeds 100% in almost 100 countries.
Indeed, today, a world without ICTs is unthinkable, with ICTs integrated into almost every single part of the social and economic fabric worldwide. The big challenge now will be to bring equitable, affordable access to broadband networks to all the world’s people.
In a world where we still face enormous issues of poverty, lack of sanitation, food insecurity, and inadequate healthcare and education provision, does broadband access really matter?
The truth is that it most certainly does — because widespread broadband access will allow us to address and help resolve many of the most pressing issues facing a more populous, ageing world. Indeed, broadband is absolutely key to furthering social and economic development, and it will be vital in all countries in the 21st century in helping to deliver essential services such as health, education and good government — as well as in helping to improve sustainability.
The International Telecommunication Union has also been a leader in recognizing the importance of broadband, and was pivotal in 2010, together with Unesco, in launching the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, with the aim of demonstrating that in the 21st century broadband networks are basic infrastructure in a modern society, just like roads, electricity or water.
They are uniquely powerful tools for accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals — the MDGs. They are remarkably cost-effective and offer an impressive return-on-investment for both developed and developing economies alike. They underpin all industrial sectors and increasingly are the foundation of public services and social progress. And they need to be coordinated nationally by governments in partnership with industry, in order to reap the full benefits.
The Broadband Commission is co-chaired by Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and Carlos Slim, honorary lifetime chairman of Grupo Carso, with myself and Unesco’s director-general, Irina Bokova, serving as the co-vice-chairs.
There are more than 50 Broadband Commissioners, who are all top-level leaders in their field, representing governments, industry, academia and international agencies, and who are committed to seeing the Commission continue its activities right up to the 2015 target date for the MDGs.
The Commission presented its first report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2010, ahead of the MDG Summit in New York. This first report included top-level recommendations — including accelerating broadband access for women and girls, and the need to use transparent, fair, competitive, technology-neutral models — which are designed to serve as a global blueprint for rapid broadband development worldwide; and it is pleasing to be able to report that the message continues to spread rapidly around the world.
The Broadband Commission’s second, much more detailed, report, Broadband: a Platform for Progress, was launched at the Paris meeting of the Commission in June 2011. This report analyses the challenges and opportunities in deploying broadband, taking into account local needs, financing constraints and technical hurdles, and it makes practical proposals on routes towards deployment of ubiquitous high-speed networks at affordable prices in every country, at every stage of development.
ICTs and broadband for sustainability
ICTs and broadband also have an absolutely crucial role to play both in fostering a green economy and in creating a more environmentally-sustainable world. While ICTs do themselves contribute greenhouse gas emissions — currently around 2-2.5% of the total globally — they are also directly instrumental in helping reduce the carbon footprint of all other sectors, and particularly those that most contribute to climate change.
Through the use of smart technologies, such as smart grids, smart water management and intelligent transport systems, or through the dematerialization and digitalization of goods and services, ICTs can help significantly abate the emissions from the transportation and energy sectors, as well as those of many other industries.
ICTs — through satellite monitoring for example — can also play a huge role in making agriculture more efficient, allowing more timely planting and harvesting decisions, and more effective use of irrigation.
The ITU is a key player in the area of climate change, and is working with the ICT industry to help reduce its carbon footprint, as well as setting up the standards that will enable better measurement of the benefits ICTs and broadband can bring.
In addition, the ITU is ensuring that the spectrum and satellite orbits needed for monitoring climate change are properly allocated and is exploring new ways in which developing countries can use ICTs to adapt to climate change. Examples of this latest area of activity include the use of ICTs in early warning systems that can help save millions of lives in natural disasters.
A good example of how broadband delivers social and economic benefits for all — and improves environmental sustainability at the same time — is smart electricity grids, which use broadband for monitoring and control. Smart grids allow electricity companies to limit losses, prevent outages and provide customers with real-time information for managing their own energy use at work or at home. In addition, smart grids make it easier for locally-generated electricity — including from renewable sources — to be integrated, stored and shared as demand fluctuates across the grid.
Big savings can be made in this way — both financially, and in reducing the impact of electricity generation on the environment. What is more, smart grids can also be used to deliver broadband connectivity itself, along with power supplies.
To be cost-effective, and rolled out rapidly, smart grids depend on new global standards, and the ITU is pleased to have brokered the G.hnem standards (ITU-T Recommendations) which address several smart grid applications such as distribution automation, advanced metering infrastructure, demand side management, grid-to-home communications, home/building energy management, home automation, vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-charging station communications.
The new standards provide the crucial link between electricity and communications networks, enabling utilities to exercise a higher level of monitoring and control of the grid.
G.hnem is an ideal platform for smart grid applications because of its support of power lines as a communications medium under the direct and complete control of power utilities. Since power line communications exploit the existing wired infrastructure, the cost to deploy a communications channel is greatly reduced. In addition, because G.hnem supports popular protocols like ethernet, IPv4 and IPv6, G.hnem-based smart grid networks can easily be integrated with IP-based networks.
Smarter resource management
The same essential principles also apply to smart water management and distribution, and here, too, ICTs and broadband will play a vital role in the 21st century, as water resources become more scarce — and more valuable.
Technologies such as semantic sensor web, remote sensing with satellite, and geographical information systems can be used innovatively by water authorities to obtain information in real time about water use; to track and forecast the level of rivers; and to identify new sources of fresh water.
ICTs and broadband provide a unique opportunity for water stakeholders to obtain information in near real time about a number of physical and environmental variables such as temperature, soil moisture levels, rainfall, and others through web enabled sensors and communication networks, and can thus have accurate information about the situation at hand — without physically being there — for their forecasts and decisions.
Smart metering technologies can also provide individuals, businesses and water companies with near real-time information about their own water use, thus raising awareness about usage, locating leakages and having better control over water demand.
Broadband networks will also be a cornerstone of the internet of things, by which objects and machines communicate without the need for human intervention, making processes more efficient while improving our lifestyle. One example is intelligent transport, which can dramatically reduce both accidents and fuel consumption.
Events such as ITU Telecom World 2011, which takes place in Geneva on October24-27, will play a vital part in driving these visions forward. For the first time this year, the event will feature a special Broadband Leadership Summit where over 300 leaders from around the world will get together to share their experiences exchange new ideas.
Through events such as this, ITU aims to raise the issue of broadband to the very top of the political agenda, and to get the message out to the rest of the world — to the general public, to enterprises large and small, and to government decision makers around the world.
That’s why at ITU Telecom World 2011 we’ll be seeing young innovators and digital innovators working with NGOs rub shoulders with government leaders and industry CEOs. Together, they’ll help clearly demonstrate the social and economic benefits enhanced global communications for all. GTB
The International Telecommunication Union is an agency of the United Nations. For more on the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, see www.broadbandcommission.org