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Emerging markets and women lose out on mobile broadband, says UN

The UN Broadband Commission has released two reports covering the growth of mobile broadband.

While the reports confirm mobile broadband as the fastest-growing technology in human history, they also provide a stark warning that emerging markets could be left behind in terms of adoption.

The State of Broadband report reveals that mobile broadband subscriptions, which allow users to access the web via smartphones, tablets and WiFi-connected laptops, are growing at a rate of 30% per year. By the end of 2013 there will be more than three times as many mobile broadband connections as there are conventional fixed broadband subscriptions.

In terms of Internet use, there are now more than 70 countries where over 50% of the population is online. However, the top ten countries for Internet use are all located in Europe, with the exception of New Zealand (8th) and Qatar (10th).

“The new analysis in this year’s report shows progress in broadband availability, but we must not lose sight of those who are being left behind,” said ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, who serves as co-Vice Chair of the Commission with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “While more and more people are coming online, over 90% of people in the world’s 49 Least Developed Countries remain totally unconnected. Internet – and particularly broadband Internet – has become a key tool for social and economic development, and needs to be prioritized, even in the world’s poorest nations. Technology combined with relevant content and services can help us bridge urgent development gaps in areas like health, education, environmental management and gender empowerment.”

The report also tracks a new target mandating ‘gender equality in broadband access by the year 2020’, which was set by the Commission at its March meeting in Mexico City. ITU figures confirm that, worldwide, women are less likely to have access to technology than their male counterparts. While the gap is relatively small in the developed world, it widens enormously as average income levels fall.

This finding was supported by the Commission’s second report, entitled Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the Inclusion of Women & Girls in the Information Society. This reveals a ‘significant and pervasive’ ‘tech gap’ in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). Globally, the report estimates that there are currently 200 million fewer women online than men, and warns that the gap could grow to 350 million within the next three years if action is not taken.

The report brings together extensive research from UN agencies, Commission members and partners from industry, government and civil society, to create the first comprehensive global snapshot of broadband access by gender. Unfortunately, the broader trend was that around the world, women are coming online later and more slowly than men. Of the world’s 2.8 billion Internet users, 1.3 billion are women, compared with 1.5 billion men.

While the gap between male and female users is relatively small in OECD nations, it widens rapidly in the developing world, where expensive, ‘high status’ ICTs like computers are often reserved for use by men. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it is estimated that only half as many women are connected as men. Worldwide, women are also on average 21% less likely to own a mobile phone – representing a mobile gender gap of 300 million, equating to US$13 billion in potential missed revenues for the mobile sector.

Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said “[The report] calls for social and technological inclusion and citizens’ participation, explaining the societal and economic benefits of providing access to broadband and ICTs to women, small entrepreneurs and the most vulnerable populations. Most importantly, this report shows ways in which we can further advance the sustainable development agenda by promoting the use of new technologies in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

The report speculates that today’s untapped pool of female users could also represent a market opportunity for device makers, network operators, and software and app developers that might equal or even outstrip the impact of large emerging markets like China or India.

“Promoting women’s access to ICTs – and particularly broadband – should be central to the post-2015 global development agenda,” said Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General and co-Vice Chair of the Broadband Commission. “The mobile miracle has demonstrated the power of ICTs in driving social and economic growth, but this important new report reveals a worrying ‘gender gap’ in access. We need to make sure that all people – and most crucially today’s younger generation – have equitable access to ICTs. I believe it is in the interest of every government to urgently strive to redress this imbalance.”

Research highlighted in the report indicates that, in developing countries, every 10% increase in access to broadband translates to a 1.38% growth in GDP. That means that bringing an additional 600 million women and girls online could boost global GDP by as much as US$18 billion.

The report also emphasises the importance of encouraging more girls to pursue ICT careers. By 2015, it is estimated that 90% of formal employment across all sectors will require ICT skills. Professionals with computer science degrees can expect to earn salaries similar to doctors or lawyers – yet even in developed economies, women now account for fewer than 20% of ICT specialists.

 

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