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Global partners at Davos pledge to connect the unconnected


January 21, 2016  


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A new global dialogue focused on getting the next 1.5 billion unconnected people online was forged at a special session of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development held at the World Economic Forum in Davos today.

The session was part of the commission’s efforts to build momentum and reach out to world leaders to push the issue of broadband connectivity to the top of the global agenda. It is the first time that so many world leaders have affirmed the vital importance of broadband to national growth and coalesced around a common broadband vision.

A new discussion paper developed by ITU as a contribution to the work of the commission presented at the session estimates that it will take global investment of $US450 billion in network infrastructure to connect the next 1.5 billion unconnected people worldwide.

The paper looks at key reasons for lack of connectivity, identified as lack of infrastructure, lack of affordable services, lack of online skills, and lack of suitable digital content. Its global broadband connectivity cost estimate is based on the Broadband Commission’s own research combined with recent studies undertaken by governmental bodies such as the European Commission, global organizations including the World Bank, and industry bodies such as the GSMA, which represents many of the world’s mobile operators.

The session culminated in the release of a Joint Statement by the group entitled Working Together to Provide Internet Access to the Next 1.5 billion by 2020. The statement notes that only 3.2 billion people currently have online access, while 4.2 billion people remain offline. In the 48 UN-designated Least Developed Countries, Internet penetration is less than 10%, falling to under 2% in six of the world’s most disadvantaged nations.

The statement pledges a concerted global effort to connect 60% of the world’s people to the Internet by the year 2020, in line with ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda agreed by the organization’s 193 member states in 2014.

It also stresses the importance of striving for meaningful access, so that all those connected can take full advantage of the power of the online world. At present, the statement notes, only 5% of the world’s languages are represented online, an estimated 781 million adults are illiterate, and 100 million children have not had access to complete primary education – creating large pockets of the ‘digitally excluded’.

The 2015 edition of the Broadband Commission’s State of Broadband report confirms that global Internet roll-out is failing to reach those who could benefit most, with Internet access reaching near-saturation in the world’s rich nations but not advancing fast enough to benefit billions of people living in the developing world – especially in rural and remote areas.

“The goals remind us that global development should be measured by the number of people being left behind,” said ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao, who serves as co-vice chair of the Broadband Commission alongside Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO. “Market forces have been sufficient to connect the world’s wealthier nations, where a strong business case for network investment can easily be made. Our big challenge now is to find fast and effective ways of connecting the next 1.5 billion people, who still lack the benefits of Internet connectivity, by 2020, and this will be the key focus of the Broadband Commission going forward.”