GENEVA – A world where every citizen is connected to the Internet is inevitable. It is not a question of if, but when, this will happen. Mobile broadband is the fastest growing technology in history and is the catalyst that will ultimately lead to millions more being connected to a world of digital opportunities.
Information and communication technologies, or ICTs, have become all pervasive in our society and are set to become even more so as we enter an era of “the Internet of things” and big data. ICTs are no longer seen as exclusive or expensive add-ons; they are now recognized as key drivers for socioeconomic development.
What’s more, as we hurtle toward global (and affordable) access to ICTs and the Internet, we are generating incredible opportunities to create a more equitable society where crucial services such as education, health and finance are accessible to all, no matter where they live or how much they earn.
As the international community now works to integrate the United Nations sustainable development goals into national development strategies, the power of ICTs and broadband to drive progress is essential for governments to take on board.
However, with more than 4 billion people still not connected online, there is still a large part of the world’s population that is not in a position to reap the benefits of broadband. In response to this, the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N.’s specialized agency for ICTs, has established the Connect 2020 Agenda, setting ambitious connectivity goals and targets in line with global sustainable development goals, or SDGs.
The Group of Seven has been a driving force in facilitating various connectivity initiatives, including the recent Global Connect meeting organized by the U.S. State Department on connecting the next 1.5 billion people online by 2020. The G-7 ICT ministerial meeting in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, on Friday and Saturday is the latest example of this welcome trend.
As secretary-general of the U.N. agency mandated to “connect the world” and spread the benefits of ICTs to all people, I applaud these efforts that clearly recognize the critical role that ICTs play in sustainable development, and the determination of G-7 leaders to facilitate it alongside developing countries.
To fully realize these benefits and to harness the power and potential of ICTs, the global community of governments, industry, academia and other stakeholders must combine efforts to ensure a global roll-out of mobile broadband infrastructure, with relevant applications and services, and the right skills, to drive development around the world.
Governments must especially strive to connect the unconnected, as ICTs and e-skills are an engine of inclusion, economic growth and development. Game-changing innovation and ingenuity is coming from emerging economies and these skills must be fostered and supported through ensuring broadband connectivity, the lifeblood of the digital economy.
ICTs can also be a key component to ensure successful solutions across the four priority areas of action of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which was signed into life here in Japan in March 2015. Broadband networks, as well as prudent planning for network coverage in times of crisis, can help prepare and respond to disasters more rapidly and effectively.
To this end, I urge all G-7 partners to enhance planning processes for broadband infrastructure, so ICTs and broadband can help to achieve sustainable development, including disaster response and prevention. Connecting the unconnected can create high-impact social entrepreneurship and socioeconomic growth. Delivering affordable access to broadband networks can ensure the necessary scaling up of mobile learning, health and financial services — just some of the key areas where ICTs can create a more sustainable world.
I especially call on G-7 members to do more to ensure full digital inclusion, in particular with regard to least developed countries (LDCs) where household access to the Internet is running at a paltry 6.3 percent (compared with 81.3 percent in the developed world). ITU data confirms that LDCs are falling behind, which is clearly affecting their ability to derive development gains or create economic opportunities from ICTs and broadband.
To achieve global connectivity for all people and communities, governments and industry need to come together in ever more innovative public-private partnerships. According to the U.N. Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, building the infrastructure to connect the next 1.5 billion people by 2020 will cost an estimated $450 billion — this should not be seen as a “cost” but as an “investment” — an investment in all our futures and in a more resilient, sustainable and equitable world.
Houlin Zhao is secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.
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