On Saturday, 26 September, I participated in the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, jointly convened by UNESCO and ITU in New York. It is a high profile forum for diverse perspectives. Industry, government, academic, and NGOs come together to discuss and debate accelerating the adoption of Broadband globally, with a special focus on developing and less developed nations, as well as groups that similarly are under-represented in terms of broadband usage: women, people in rural communities, people with disabilities and non-English speakers. There is also a specific focus on education, healthcare, communication and information services, as well as e-Government services and ICT data collection. In essence, their mission is ‘digital inclusion’, or as US Secretary of State John Kerry said when announcing the new Global Connect initiative this week, “all of the Internet, for all of the people, all of the time.”
The Commission is chaired by the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and Carlos Slim Helú. Its members include Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General and world-renowned expert on poverty; Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and CEO of Bharti Enterprises; Nicolas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab; Kevin Martin, Vice President of Public Affairs at Facebook; Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society; Telecommunication Ministers from around the world and CEOs of telecom operators and vendors. The Broadband Commission was established in 2010, but was recently re-chartered to focus on helping to achieve the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the extension of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were in effect between 2000 and 2015. The reason for the Commission’s new focus is because of the massive role that ICT plays in achieving each of these 17 goals – in fact it is so prevalent, that the Open Working Group of UN Member States decided not to create an 18th SDG focused specifically on ICT, as it was thought that this might reduce their impact on achieving the other 17 SDGs.
According to ITU data, 43 per cent of the world’s population is now online with some form of regular access to the Internet. This leaves 57 per cent, or some 4.2 billion of the world’s population, without regular access to the Internet, 90 per cent of whom live in the developing world. In Least Developed Countries (LDCs), fewer than one in ten people are online. Conversely, Internet penetration is approaching saturation in the developed world, with 82 per cent of the population online. So it is clear that rather than digital inclusion, there is still a pervasive digital divide, with ‘digital deserts’ existing alongside the physical deserts that have challenged development in many of these nations throughout modern history.
The impact of this divide will only be exacerbated as we enter a new digital era in which everything will be connected to allow automation of systems, processes, and ultimately citizens’ lives. Unless we address this inequity in broadband connectivity now, we will create a world comprised of the ‘digerati’ conducting commerce and living lives that are continuously optimized for communication, collaboration, content, and control of anything, anywhere, and an ‘analogue underclass’ who are constrained to exist and operate primarily in the physical space, defined by their citizenship, and in relative isolation as digital nomads wandering from connected oasis to connected oasis.
If we want to avoid this dystopia, we all need to do more to help the Commission and its incredibly laudable goals. And this must start ‘at home’ – in the organizations that we work for and in which we are involved. At Bell Labs, I am fond of saying that we focus on solving big ‘human need’ problems, but really we tackle the biggest ‘developed world human need problems’, as those typically represent the most sophisticated technological challenges. But these are not necessarily the most difficult problems; sometimes the hardest problems are those that are constrained in terms of (low) cost, (low) energy, or (low) bandwidth utilization or availability. We must continue to work to ensure that we address and meet these needs.
Therefore, I have offered Bell Labs resources to the Broadband Commission to help create and innovate projects that can digitize the under-developed and under-connected world. The point was made during the Commission session, held in September 2015 in New York, that the greatest successes came when people like Bill Gates committed USD 2 billion of his personal funds to drive an initiative to eradicate malaria. But in order to connect the world, we need to invest capital and human resources to ensure that access is provided together with capacity building training. We must continue to work together to ensure that everyone can benefit from this transformative technology.
This blog was originally posted on the Alcatel-Lucent blog, and has been edited and re-published with the author’s permission. Read the original article here.
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