Information and communication technologies (ICT) have driven global development in an unprecedented way, providing huge opportunities for social and economic development. Billions of people enjoy access to ICTs thanks to technological progress, infrastructure deployment and falling prices.
The ICT industry has experienced incredible growth over the past 15 years. In 2000, there were 400 million global Internet users; today there are 3.2 billion. There are more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide today, up from 738 million in 2000. In 2014, the price of a basic (fixed or mobile) broadband plan was less than 5 per cent of the average Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in 111 countries, meeting targets set out by the Broadband Commission. Personal ICTs from laptops to mobile handsets continue to innovate year-on-year.
These new figures not only show the rapid technological progress made to date, but also help us to identify those being left behind in the rapidly evolving digital economy, as well as areas where ICT investment is needed most.
Indeed, a high level of inequality persists in access to ICTs; 82 per cent of people in the developed world use the Internet, compared to 35 per cent in the developing world, and 10 per cent in LDCs. The price of basic broadband (fixed or mobile) is over 20 per cent of the average GNI per capita in 22 countries.
This has significant repercussions for global social and economic development, especially considering the transformative role that ICTs play in unlocking efficiencies and capabilities in a range of sectors, such as healthcare, education, finance and e-governance.
A 2009 report by the World Economic Forum stated that for every dollar invested in broadband (fixed and wireless), the U.S. economy is expected to see a tenfold return, and that raising broadband penetration in emerging markets to current Western European levels could add USD 300 – USD 420 billion in GDP and create 10 to 14 million new jobs. Through the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, ITU advocates for universal broadband policies, boosting affordability and broadband uptake through annual targets.
Ensuring access to ICTs also has a significant impact on closing the gender digital divide. There are 200 million fewer women online than men, and forecasts predict that without remedial action, this could grow to 350 million in a few years, which would have serious ramifications on the social, economic and political inclusion of women and girls. However, various schools of thought are of the view that bringing 600 million additional women and girls online could boost the global GDP by up to USD 13-18 billion.
ITU’s International Girls in ICT Day initiative works to advance the inclusion of women and girls online by increasing their awareness of the vast possibilities offered by ICTs and give them the confidence to pursue ICT studies and careers. ITU Member States and Sector Members are encouraged to organize events on International Girls in ICT Day, held annually on the fourth Thursday of April, to empower and encourage girls and young women to consider studies and careers in the growing field of ICTs. Since 2011, International Girls in ICT Day has been observed in 150 countries around the world, with over 177,000 girls and young women participating in more than 5,300 events. In 2015 alone, more than 66,000 girls and young women took part in over 1,800 events in over 130 countries worldwide.
Connecting all primary, secondary and post-secondary schools to ICTs by 2015 was one of the targets set by world leaders at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. Recognizing that connected schools can serve as community ICT centres for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, including women and girls, ITU launched Connect a School, Connect a Community, a public-private partnership to promote broadband Internet connectivity for schools in developing countries worldwide.
The objective is that children and youth attending these connected schools will have improved access to the latest ICTs. ICT-based training on basic life skills (language literacy, numeracy and basic ICT literacy) along with training to develop business and ICT-specialized skills would be leveraged to improve the economic and social development of the entire community. The goal of this online platform is to promote understanding and awareness among government decision makers, donors and partners on the need for coordinated policies, regulations and practices that promote school connectivity and community benefits.
ITU members, including policy makers, regulators and service providers also have an important role to play in ensuring that ICTs in their countries are accessible for persons with disabilities and to eliminate ICT accessibility barriers. One billion people worldwide live with some form of disability and we are committed to increasing the accessibility of ICTs. This means that if someone cannot see a typical screen they need a way to understand what is on it, such as text-to-speech functionality. If a user cannot hear information, they need a way to get that information, such as captioning on television or speech-to-text they can read on a mobile phone. Likewise, if someone cannot input a command on an ICT device with their hand, they need alternative ways to do this.
ITU has produced an online toolkit to enhance accessibility and actively encourages its members to develop policies and strategies for mainstreaming digital accessibility at the national, regional and international levels in line with Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which defines ICT accessibility as an integral part of accessibility rights on par with transportation and the physical environment. ITU’s technical standards ensure that products and services complying with its standards include accessibility features.
In order to close the growing digital divide, we must ensure that we create an enabling environment for the growth of ICTs by strengthening mutually reinforcing functions: investment in infrastructure, ICT education and training, ensuring market competition, developing robust policies and regulation, and cultivating diverse applications and content. These tasks will take on greater importance as ICTs play a significant role in achieving the post-2015 sustainable development goals as the world moves towards a digital society.
ITU’s mission is to connect the world and to create a truly inclusive information society. We are committed to closing the digital divide, and ensuring that ICTs continue to be a dynamic driver for sustainable growth and development.
Houlin Zhao was elected as Secretary- General of ITU at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 in Busan, Republic of Korea, and took office on 1 January 2015. Mr Zhao was elected ITU Deputy Secretary-General at the Plenipotentiary Conference in Antalya, Turkey, in November 2006 and re-elected for a second four-year term in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October 2010. From 1999 to 2006, he served as Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB) with his first election at PP-98 in Minneapolis, USA and again at PP-02 in Marrakesh, Morocco. From 1986-1998, he worked at ITU headquarters, as an Engineer/Councellor. Mr Zhao graduated from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and holds an MSc in Telematics from the University of Essex in the UK.