ITU Calls for Lower Broadband Prices in Emerging Markets - An Interview with Dr Hamadoun Touré

Fixed broadband costs over five times more relative to average incomes in BRIC countries than in developed nations. In an interview with Developing Telecoms, Dr Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the ITU, called on developing and emerging markets to lower the cost of broadband relative to monthly incomes in order to narrow the ‘broadband divide’...

According to the latest statistics from the ITU, at the start of 2010 the average broadband penetration rate (number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants) in the seven world leading markets (UK, USA, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and South Korea) was 29.6%. The cost of fixed broadband in these countries as a percentage of average monthly incomes is 0.89%.

By comparison the penetration rate in the BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is just 6.3%, while the cost is over five times higher as a percentage of average income at 4.82%. Many LDCs (least developed countries) have broadband penetration rates of less than 1% while the cost is commonly more than 100% of average monthly income.

In an interview with Developing Telecoms, Dr Hamadoun Touré, Secretary General of the ITU, called on governments, regulators, CSPs and ISPs in developing and emerging markets to lower the cost of broadband relative to monthly incomes in order to narrow the ‘broadband divide’.

Dr Touré believes that the ‘broadband divide’ is now more important than the ‘digital divide’ and that access to low cost broadband should be viewed as a basic necessity by all governments, much as access to clean drinking water and electricity are viewed now. The Broadband Commission, of which he is vice-chair, was set up in May 2010 with the objective of transforming the world through increased access to broadband, particularly in emerging markets. The commission, which is co-chaired by President Paul Kigame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim, the Latin American telecoms entrepreneur and one of the world’s wealthiest men, promotes the adoption of broadband-friendly regulatory frameworks, policies and practices.

 “Broadband is today’s truly transformational technology,” said Dr Touré. “As with the dawn of other inventions that profoundly reshaped our society, most of us are yet to see the tremendous power and potential of these networks. It’s not just about fast web browsing. Through e-health, e-education, e-government, smart grids, smart transport systems and much more, broadband will power economic and social progress in the 21st century. When we first harnessed electricity, we thought: ‘lighting’. But the advent of the power grid was the tipping point that led to the building of skyscrapers, the rapid rise of large-scale industry, mass mobility, and even – through labour-saving home appliances – the emancipation of women.”

Dr Touré told Developing Telecoms that he believes broadband can be successfully delivered through a partnership between the public and private sectors, much as mobile telephony has been during the first decade of the new millennium. “The large cost of building broadband networks can be balanced against the economic and social advantages they deliver. WSIS provided the model for public-private sector cooperation. Putting appropriate regulatory frameworks in place has enabled mobile markets to expand massively.”

Dr Touré recalled that there is still resistance to deregulation in some areas and he views it as one of the key missions of the ITU to foster awareness of the advantages of deregulation of ICT. “In 1999, when I became Secretary General of the ITU, 30 countries had independent telecom regulators; now the figure is 166. At first many people from the public sector were cautious about working closely with the private sector, but they can see the benefits now.”

However, Dr Touré is firmly of the belief that top down, one size fits all solutions will not work and each country must work out the regulatory framework and business models that will best work for them.

The Broadband Commission was started at Dr Touré’s instigation in response to fears about missing some of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Dr Touré told Developing Telecoms that he believes ICTs are the key enablement technologies which are fundamental to the achievement of all other MDGs by 2015. Dr Touré is meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York later this month to present the findings of  the Broadband Commission, just ahead of the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York.

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