ITU Telecom World 2015: connectivity goals, the reality of reaching everyone by 2020 – and why it matters so much

As the backbone infrastructure to all other industrial sectors and the motor of emerging and developed economies alike, ICTs are the cross-cutting key enablers of social development and economic growth the world over. The direct correlation between broadband networks and increased GDP is widely accepted – and ensuring universal access to the digital economy for all the world’s citizens is critical.


Working to close the digital divide between the connected and unconnected is a key first step towards sustainable development, and forms the core of ITU’s Connect 2020 vision to expand government action in extending connectivity. Governments, and governmental policies, initiatives, incentives or actions of one form or another, are undeniably the single most important factor in connecting the world.


Because where the market fails, where private sector investment in infrastructure dries up, where networks and the multiple services they carry are economically inviable, or challenged by geography and demography in rural and remote regions across the world, it is government that must step forward.


Organized by the lead UN agency for ICTs, ITU Telecom World 2015 is uniquely positioned as a global platform for leading representatives from public and private sectors around the world to come together to exhibit solutions, share knowledge in the programme of world-class Forum debates, and make important networking connections. This mix of emerging and developed markets, government and industry, is what makes the event so special – and what enables it to bring fresh and meaningful perspectives to closing the digital divide.


Government ministers will join industry leaders, entrepreneurs, small and medium businesses, consultants, academics and media from throughout the ICT sector in discussing how funding and investment can be secured to ensure 1.5 billion additional citizens have access to high-speed broadband networks, services and applications.


Extending access to broadband and the benefits it brings means tackling the challenge of providing last – or first – mile connectivity where traditional access models have proved unfeasible.  Innovative technological solutions include the use of white spaces, balloons or drones, or grassroots initiatives such as assembling mesh Wifi networks or connecting groups of houses through local open source projects.


Debates will focus on lessons to be learnt from successful innovators in last mile connectivity, the latest trends, cross-sector partnerships and new developments. The role of local entrepreneurs, for example, in building access from a central point in a village or rural community, in both developed and emerging markets has great potential.


So, too, do government policies to stimulate broadband demand, extend local content and access and create smart villages supporting local community needs.  Practical and concrete initiatives may be supported by targeted taxation and other government financial instruments aimed at promoting connectivity and incentivising private investment.


Industry support is vital – governments cannot connect the world alone any more than market forces can – so the business case for investment and for cross-sector partnerships needs to be made clear, in terms of economic growth, job creation and social development.


And beyond the divide of basic connectivity, the rush has begun to monetize big data, implement the tremendous potential of the Internet of Things, and develop new applications and solutions in emerging technologies from human to machine interfaces and artificial intelligence to wearable tech, embedded tech and augmented humanity.  As regulatory bodies and governments work to establish relevant legal and ethical frameworks, and as new and established industry players jostle for position in the evolving ecosystem, there is a very real danger that the developing world will once more be left behind.


Without access to the crucial means to participate in the global digital economy – including basic connectivity and access to electricity or other energy supplies – we may be witnessing a new Digital Data Divide. Addressing the investment gap, developing future-facing strategies and fostering local innovation are core priorities for emerging market governments to bridge the gap, and even pole vault beyond the established industrial nations into the next stage of the digital economy.


The full programme of debates at ITU Telecom World 2015, held under the central theme of Accelerating Innovation for Social Good, will include multiple aspects of this fundamental challenge, including building regional digital single markets to increase access to digital technologies and tools, maximise socio-economic benefits and lay the foundations of future prosperity; making the best use of the critical resource of spectrum; legislating and regulating for data protection, security and privacy; and building consumer trust in data. Innovative models and solutions to providing government services, from crowd-sourced legislation to open data projects, open source education and the use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones), will be also examined.


Broadband connectivity enables communities to become sustainable ICT users contributing directly to the economy, empowers and enriches lives, provides vital new revenue streams for telcos, and offers immense long term benefits in terms of health, education and other social metrics. Governments must invest to provide stability, international connectivity, access to data and global knowledge in local languages; develop an integrated, joined-up ICT policy; and support a multi-stakeholder approach led by local communities.


Ultimately, it may be psychology, not technology, that is the greatest barrier to broadband adoption. Governments will have to move beyond entrenched views on national security and national assets to extend and deepen awareness of the enormous social and economic benefits of broadband through engaging with new and local partners, developing innovative solutions and applications, opening markets, maybe opening borders and mindsets.


ITU Telecom World 2015 offers an unparalleled opportunity to move the debate forward, to engage with government and with industry in meaningful partnerships essential to meeting connectivity goals and improving lives everywhere. Together, we can accelerate innovation for social good, going further, faster to make the world better, sooner.


For more information on ITU Telecom World 2015, see telecomworld.itu.int