Addressing the urban/rural ICT divide

malcolm blog 1ITU is about to publish its updated ICT database shortly. The headline figures of 3.2 billion people online / 4.2 billion people offline are well-known, highlighting the substantial international digital divide. Another important issue within countries is the rural/urban digital divide, the domestic digital divide most often referred to, in addition to the gender digital divide or differences in Internet access between different communities or minorities.

I recently had the pleasure of addressing the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organization (CTO) ICT Ministers Forum 2016 on this vital topic. This Forum, the second hosted by CTO, benefitted from the presence of Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Heads of regulatory agencies of 20 countries, over 130 delegates and a range of industry partners including Inmarsat, Avanti, Huawei, BT and Facebook. The Forum debated a broad spectrum of far-ranging and topical subjects including ICT regulation, universal service, broadband strategies, cybersecurity and Internet governance.

Why does the rural/urban digital divide arise?  Evidence suggests that it comes about as the result of a complex interplay of factors on both the supply and the demand side (“The State of Broadband 2015” report).  On the demand side, lack of purchasing power, literacy and socio-cultural factors can all play a role in hampering demand for telephony or Internet services, as well as lack of relevant content in local or indigenous languages. On the supply side, the market structure, population density, network coverage and local business models can all contribute to making telecommunication services unavailable or unreliable. A report prepared for ITU last year by the consultancy Analysys Mason explores the cost behavior involved in extending networks nationwide in TFYR of Macedonia, and found that the cost of coverage rises sharply after around 40% household coverage with fibre (roughly corresponding to Macedonia TFYR’s urban population of around 57%), making it commercially infeasible to extend coverage of FTTH and FTTC much beyond 44% of households for that country. In countries with higher urban populations, the proportion of households which are commercially feasible to cover is likely to be higher.

So what’s to be done about the urban/rural divide?  Many of the conditions for an ‘enabling environment’ are by now well-known, although a challenging range of different regulatory environments exist in different countries. 164 ITU Member States have now established an ICT regulator, and a higher number have introduced competition in the mobile market. Best practice guidelines for telecom regulators are published regularly each year at ITU’s Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR) event, but broadly speaking, regulators should engage in regular consultations and benchmarking, with an open approach and the encouragement of new technologies (such as VoIP), and work with the industry and other major stakeholders to resolve potential issues quickly as they arise (on topics such as roaming fees, OTTs, FDI, interconnection, taxation, depending on the country and/or region).

With regards to universal service, a range of different policy options are also available, including legal requirements, Universal Service Obligations, license conditions and or Universal Service Funds (USFs). It can also be helpful to include universal service for remote and rural areas in the National Broadband Plan. The figure below shows the range of different options available to ITU Member States, according to a recent survey undertaken by ITU.

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In the Commonwealth, nearly half the members (26 countries) have an operational USF, and a slightly higher number (31) have included broadband in their definition of Universal Access or Service.

Thanks to the close relationship that exists between CTO and ITU, at least these two organisations can continue to work together to help bridge this gap.

Despite these well recognized policy frameworks, the urban/rural digital divide persists and is becoming more evident. This is a critical area that needs to be addressed if we are to achieve the 2030 development agenda, as without connecting the 4 billion people currently unconnected it will in impossible to implement the 17 SDGs. Many organisations are working to bridge this gap, including CTO and ITU. But more needs to be done to collaborate, pool resources and avoid duplication. This is itself a huge challenge. Thanks to the close relationship that exists between CTO and ITU, our two organisations can continue to work together to help bridge this gap.

Malcolm Johnson

MJ DSGMalcolm Johnson (@ITU_DSGwas elected ITU Deputy Secretary General at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 in Busan, Republic of Korea. Mr. Johnson was elected as Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006 in Antalya, Turkey and was re-elected at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2010 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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