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Observations in and Around the UN Broadband Commission

Paul Budde

Towards gender equality

The 7th meeting of the UN Broadband Commission in Mexico City was again a good combination of announcements about new plans, results of previously undertaken activities, and views on the future of broadband. Very noticeable was the enthusiasm and acknowledgement of the impact of ICT, and of broadband in particular.

In September 2012 the Commission launched its working group on gender equality. Research undertaken by the various members of the workgroup provided somewhat similar results:

  • Globally there is a 21% gender gap in relation to access to mobile phones, although in South-East Asia this gap is 37%.
  • 40% of women in developing economies find a job due to ownership of a mobile phone.
  • The global gap for internet access is 25%, while in the sub-Saharan countries this is 45%.
  • There are most likely thousands of gender equality pilots. Of these pilots, those that are now delivering results need to move on to the implementation stage.
  • Only 29% of the 119 national broadband plans around the world include policies for gender equality.
  • Empowering young people to adopt ICT will give them the ability to teach their parents, and the reverse of this will also apply.
  • A full half-day of the two-day meeting of the Commission was dedicated to gender equality in broadband. The following day the full Commission endorsed the goal set by the working group calling for global equality in broadband access by 2020. Women are key in household and community development, and gender equality will add between US$13 and US$18 billion to economic GDP (Intel. 2013).

7th Broadband Commission for Digital Development Meeting – Mexico City, Mexico, 16-17 March 2013.
Photo: ITU (Click to Enlarge)
The Commission also specifically mentioned that gender equality should not be, or become, a separate single issue. It is not another 'ism'. It should automatically be included in all aspects of ICT, broadband and policies in general. At the moment, technology is not gender-neutral.

An unexpected good news story came from Iraq. In 2011 only 20% of women in that country had access to a mobile phone. Thanks to a new mobile package specifically designed for women by mobile operator Asiacell (part of the Qtel Group) 40% of Asiacell's subscriber base are now women, and an additional 1.8 million of them will have access to a mobile phone by the end of 2014. The package specifically addresses the cultural aspects of womanhood in an Arab country — for example, female sales assistants, access to an all-female call centre, blocking of calls and SMS from certain people — and the way women use mobile — e.g., reduced tariffs for longer calls. It is to be hoped that the ideas and success of this initiative will spread.

The issue of violence against women was highlighted. Worldwide there are most likely hundreds of millions of women who suffer abuse, and this was highlighted with shocking examples from the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, where girls as young as 12 years will be forced to sell themselves in order to survive. Radio and TV programs are used by the Jordanian government to try and empower these girls, but ICT, and mobile phones in particular, can be used to break through this cycle of abuse.

One million ICT-empowered community workers

In January 2013 the One Million Community Workers program, aimed at providing one million smartphones to community workers — predominantly in the sub-Saharan countries, which has the largest group of least developed countries in the world — was officially launched and adopted by the African Union. Nine countries have already signed up to the program, with another six in the pipeline and more to follow. Both the smartphone vendor community and the mobile operators — MTN in particular — have given their support to this program. This is critical as rural mobile coverage will have to be extended in these countries and low-cost smartphones need to be made available (Huawei announced that by the end of the year there will be a US$50 smartphone).

In relation to healthcare, the UN Foundation (UNF) mentioned that there is huge shift in providing healthcare rather than bringing people to it. Through m-health, healthcare will increasingly be delivered to the people. The UNF recently also launched a report on standards and interoperability in e-health.

New projects of the Commission

New projects that received support from the Commission included:

A commitment to promote digital accessibility for the one billion people with disabilities worldwide, similar to the gender equality goal stimulating the development of policies that will lead to equality in relation to ICT access. Between 30%-50% of people with disabilities do not have access to the internet. In all developing economies, people with disabilities, together with older-aged people, form by far the largest unconnected segment.

Youssou N'Dour – New AfricaCommissioner Youssou N'Dour, the famous African musician and Minister of Tourism of Senegal, received support for his project 'New Africa 2014'. I would like to recommend this very moving video clip to you. His aim is to encourage the use of ICT and broadband by the youth of Africa, through his music. Several Commissioners will attend and speak at his concert in Dakar, Nigeria.

The Commission also launched a new Task Force on the post-2015 development agenda and the future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — or as some prefer to call them Continuous Development Goals. The initiative aims to leverage the huge installed base of mobile handsets to bring new services to communities globally, particularly in the world's poorest countries. ITU's m-Powering Initiative, seeks to act as a catalyst to achieve sustainability, harnessing the power of state-of-the-art ICTs and smart solutions to meet new Sustainable Development Goals.

The Commission's working group on Youth will lead a Global Youth Summit on technology issues, to be held in Costa Rica in November at the invitation of President Laura Chinchilla. Interesting research presented at the meeting by Alcatel-Lucent indicated that in countries with high youth unemployment (Spain, Bangladesh, India, Ghana) 30% of young people indicated a willingness to become an entrepreneur by using their mobile phone and ICT skills.

As young people are quickly becoming tech-savvy it is critical to launch 'train-the-trainer' projects — train community workers, etc. The recently announced educational reforms in Mexico are a good example of a positive direction, as they include a much larger role for ICT in education.

The future of broadband

Last but not least, the future…

While promoting the development of national broadband access and affordability policies continues to be the key goal for the Commission, the focus is starting to shift towards 'broadband as a catalyst for social and economic transformation'. According to Ericsson, 6.5 billion people will be connected to the internet by 2018, and by that time 95% of the global population will have access to mobile technology, with the majority having access to a smartphone.

Several Commissioners were very pleased that access is well and truly underway in many developing countries, and noted that policy development now needs to encompass the demand side (services and applications). While progress has been made in bridging the digital divide, there is now a growing policy gap. This exists particularly in relation to government policies towards the development of e-health, e-education, e-government and e-commerce. There is increased awareness among governments and politicians that their citizens have a right to information, but the problem is that most of that information is not yet available. There is an urgent need to ensure that the supply side in relation to the broadband revolution is addressed as well.

This was demonstrated by an example from India, where the government is presented with one million questions per day. A reply often takes 90 days or more, and, depending upon who answers it, the same question can supply different answers. Imagine the costs that can be taken out of the economy if e-government was widely available.

To illustrate the transformative impact of broadband, Ericsson reports that villages in the Amazon that have a mobile base station saw their GDP increase by 300%. This is done through a completely private project known as Amazon Connect.

On the other hand, the American government has calculated that not being connected to the internet creates an extra cost to the economy of $70,000 per year per family. Internet access allows families and the government to remove costs from their social and economic expenditure.

Another interesting observation is that there has been much faster growth in technology than there has been in the generation of government policies. Governments need to be made aware of the rapidly increasing gap between technology and policy. While this is an international problem — western governments are also struggling with such policies — the gap is growing most quickly in the least developed economies, and the Commission is committed to placing its full network of Commissioners behind the notion of assisting these countries in policy development. The key here is to lower the costs and give these countries complete solutions.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication. Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Mobile, Telecom

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