Broadband is the panacea for global poverty, says high-powered UN commission

24 Mar 2014

From left: Getachew Engida, deputy director general, UNESCO; Denis O'Brien, chairman, Digicel and co-founder of UN Broadband Commission; and ITU secretary-general Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

Universal access to broadband could be the catalyst that lifts developing countries out of poverty and accelerates access to healthcare and education – that’s the view of the UN Broadband Commission, which met in Dublin during the weekend.

The ninth meeting of the commission, which was co-founded by Digicel chairman Denis O’Brien and which includes one of the world’s wealthiest men, Carlos Slim, as co-chair, was quick to point out that broadband is a complementary utility to boost the provision of critical utilities like clean drinking water, medicine and food.

Slim said that as 2.7bn people are online and active mobile broadband subscriptions now exceed 2.1bn, the key is to identify viable new operating and financing models to deploy broadband in developing world countries.

“For the first time in history, broadband gives us the power to end extreme poverty and put our planet on a new, sustainable development course.

Globally 95pc of telecoms infrastructure is private sector funded, and better incentives are urgently needed to expand in line with the burgeoning online population and the onset of the “internet of things.”

In the world’s 200 biggest cities, the number of connected devices is forecast to increase from an average of 400 devices per square kilometre to over 13,000 devices per square kilometre by 2016.

The commission, which is co-chaired by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helú, with ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova as co-Vice Chairs, said the key was smart use of broadband to help people use services in ways that boost their lives.

Of the 2.7bn people online, active mobile broadband subscriptions now exceed 2.1bn and much of this progress has taken place in the developing world.

“That translates to 820 million new Internet users and two billion new mobile broadband subscribers in developing countries in just four years,” said Touré.

‘Panacea for human poverty’

Ireland’s Denis O’Brien described broadband access as the “panacea to human poverty” and said the infrastructure will help people overcome traditional barriers like geography, language and resource constraints.

O’Brien’s Digicel companies provide mobile services in some of the world’s most challenging environments, including Haiti and Papua New Guinea.

To speed up broadband rollout O’Brien called on governments to lower spectrum license fees and called for the establishment of a “champion’s league” index to track best practice in broadband investment and deployment.

“We believe that access to broadband is a basic human right,” O’Brien said.

He emphasised that broadband was a complementary infrastructure and not a silver bullet, but its availability could spearhead advances in healthcare provision, education and entrepreneurship.

“Having broadband is a complementary thing to healthcare and education. Having clean drinking water is [becoming] a reality and we’re seeing a continued downward spiral in malaria rates. There’s no single thing that will transform the developing world, but broadband is a catalyst in terms of education and mobilising healthcare using mobile technology.”

Despite Touré holding up Ireland as a beacon for how ICT can transform a nation’s economy, the thorny subject of rural broadband in Ireland was brought up.

O’Brien said that in his discussions with Taoiseach Enda Kenny it is hoped that the arrival of trans-Atlantic fibre on Ireland’s west coast could also be a catalyst. “Obviously direct fibre access across the Atlantic would stimulate that,” he said.

Returning to the global picture Touré said that the availability of broadband ICT contribute to the progress of the UN’s goals of cutting down poverty and eliminating child mortality.

“It has an empowering effect in rural areas, in terms of education. Bringing broadband to rural areas will be a tool to accelerate progress.”

In Rwanda’s case the country is currently rolling out a nationwide 4G mobile broadband through a public private partnership.

President Kagame said the key is not just rolling out the infrastructure but ensuring it is used properly. In Rwanda some 24,000 health workers were trained through ICT.

“Our initial focus was on connectivity: to put the infrastructure and tools in place to connect citizens to the digital era. Onwards, our efforts need to focus on unleashing the smart use of broadband to help people use services in ways that will significantly improve their lives,” Kagame said.

Video interview with Denis O’Brien:


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years