“The internet is for everyone and therefore needs to be available for everyone,” Kathy Brown, President and CEO of the Internet Society, said when speaking at the second Connect 2020 roundtable. Yet there are both challenges and opportunities for realizing the ambitious task of creating a fully inclusive Internet Society as identified in Goal 2 of the Connect 2020 framework, ‘Inclusiveness – bridge the digital divide and provide broadband for all’.
This is about being committed to ensuring that everyone without exception benefits from ICTs. Under this Goal ITU will work towards global ICT access, ICT accessibility, affordability in all countries and regions and by all peoples, including marginalized and vulnerable populations, such as women, children, people with different income levels, Indigenous Peoples, the elderly and persons with disabilities.
At the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference, I had the pleasure of being joined at the second Connect 2020 roundtable by experts in their field – H.E. Rebecca Okwaci, Minister for Telecommunications and Postal Services, South Sudan; Kathy Brown, President and CEO, Internet Society; Mindel De La Torre, Chief of the International Bureau, Federal Communications Commission (FCC); and Miguel Raimilla, Executive Director, Telecentre.org Foundation – to better understand the barriers to achieving this goal. These were identified in our discussion as infrastructure, affordability and capacity building.
At only three years old, South Sudan has an internet penetration rate of 26%. Though widely used in the towns and villages where networks are available, even up to the cattle camps in some areas, people are mainly using mobile phones; but other communities are actively getting connected as they are realise the importance of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for sharing information, education and even tracking lost animals.
However, in order to roll out services, necessary infrastructure is required. This not least refers to basic backbone capabilities such as a steady and reliable flow of electricity – as Minister Okwaci noted “you may have thousands of computers with you, you may have the mobile, but you may not be able to charge them (…) How can you use them if you cannot charge them?” A significant inflow of capital will be required to develop the necessary internet infrastructure, which will depend on a number of factors including the availability of investment capital and a policy-enabling environment.
Access to an adequate infrastructure will also reduce costs for the customer, based on market supply and demand. However, internet traffic routing must also be addressed. As Brown noted, “will it [internet traffic] leave Africa, head up to Europe and then come back down to serve a local community? Internet exchange points are more economical from a local and regional point of view.”
Cost reduction can also be achieved by ensuring that there is a lack of redundancy; ITU and the Broadband Commission shares national broadband plans for instance, to ensure that mistakes are not repeated, and best practices are replicated.
Capacity building is also necessary to achieve a fully inclusive Information Society. As Minister Okwaci noted, “it is not easy to introduce something if you don’t give people the opportunity to understand it, to be aware of it, to be able to touch it. In some parts of our country, there are people who sit near the computer and they don’t even touch it because for them, it is something that they don’t know.”
The Republic of Korea tackled this issue in an innovative and efficient way by targeting different layers of society – children, women, persons with disabilities, companies and government departments – in specific ways to suit them. The result is that the Republic of Korea has lead the world in terms of overall ICT development for three consecutive years (MIS, 2013) and ranks in the top five countries for both fixed and mobile broadband penetration (State of Broadband, 2013)
Raimilla noted how women are themselves a means to build capacity. While working at Telecentre.org Foundation, he has seen women spread and share information with each other, with the community coming together to form new types of collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Indeed, capacity building among marginalized communities is essential to creating a fully inclusive Information Society, in particular among the 1 billion people globally who live with some form of disability who stand to gain the most from this inclusion. In response to outdated legislation, the USA passed the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (ACC) to ensure that no person is left behind in the advancing ICT sphere.
Private sector competition also has a part to play in ensuring a fully inclusive Information Society according to De La Torre – products need to be developed with disabilities in mind, thereby stimulating growth in the market for these products and services. And I agree wholeheartedly, there is not just a socially-inclusive imperative but a strong business case to serve the needs of consumers.
Towards the end of the roundtable discussion I was asked what models work for developing a fully inclusive society. The simple fact is that there is no universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy, only frameworks of good practice which rely on the principles outlined above – infrastructure, affordability and capacity building – and which require all stakeholders from government, private sector, civil society and customers to work in a harmonious manner to ensure success in achieving a fully inclusive society.
About Connect 2020
The Connect 2020 framework is currently under review at the PP-14 and represents an ambitious vision for the ICT sector, developed as part of the 2016-2019 ITU Strategic Plan, with goals and measurable targets representing the change that the Union wants to see achieved by 2020.
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