China’s One Belt, One Road can improve lives at scale through ICT investment

As China embarks on its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative to reinvigorate key international trade routes through massive infrastructure projects, one of the most important investment areas will be information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Belt And Road Forum For International Cooperation - Day Two

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a news conference at the end of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images)

ICTs form the backbone of today’s digital economy. They enable the work of industries and services, governments, businesses and citizens. They drive innovation.

Investments in ICTs aren’t just important for business growth, however. They can help accelerate the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), improving lives at a scale and speed never before possible.

Progress on connecting the world is being made, but there is still much work to do. Internet penetration today in developed countries is above 80%, but still only 40% in developing countries, and just 15% in least developed countries. Some 3.9 billion people in the world are not yet online. Broadband services remain out of reach for many, and smartphones are just beginning to spread into emerging markets.

It is now clear that to make further progress – and to close the digital divide between developed and developing areas of the world – there will need to be a surge of major investments in ICT infrastructure.

This is why OBOR holds so much promise.

The power of working together 

Through OBOR, countries are working together and preparing joint projects that can achieve success at a much more significant scale and have a better chance of raising the necessary funds. For an initiative with the geographic scale of OBOR, the infrastructure will need to link countries and cross borders. The support and engagement of major investors such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will be critical. Once these ICT infrastructures are in place in support of OBOR, they will bring new capacities to the surrounding local communities and open up new markets for business partners.

The investment model for ICT infrastructure will vary according to national and local circumstances, of course. In some cases, there will be a mix of public and private investment. In other cases, there may be mainly either public or private investment. This needs to be flexible.

One of the major trends in the ICT field is shared infrastructure, such as shared towers in the mobile industry. This is a practical way of covering costs and increasing investment in networks. ITU promotes this type of cost-effective and efficient infrastructure sharing. Our development sector has produced significant capacity-building research on this topic, and assists countries wishing to move in this direction.

ITU’s role

As the UN specialized agency for ICTs, ITU serves as a neutral, global platform for its Member States and industry to work together to bring the benefits of telecommunications and ICT to all parts of the world. That’s why, last week, on the occasion of the Belt and Road Forum, ITU signed an agreement to cooperate with China to assist countries to strengthen their ICT networks and services.

This is just the beginning. From this agreement, we will work together on other developing projects to assist OBOR-participating countries.

ITU is pleased to note the establishment of AIIB and BRICS banks, and other financial measures that China and partners have taken. With this solid foundation, and the progress already made, we can be confident that OBOR will achieve success, and that the people of participating countries will directly benefit from new investments in infrastructure and services, including ICTs.

By: Houlin Zhao

Houlin Zhao (@ITUSecGen) was elected 19th Secretary-General of the ITU at the Busan Plenipotentiary Conference in October 2014. He took up his post on 1 January, 2015.Prior to his election, he served two terms of office as ITU Deputy Secretary-General (2007-2014), as well as two terms as elected Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (1999-2006). He is committed to further streamlining ITU’s efficiency, to strengthening its membership base through greater involvement of the academic community and of small- and medium-sized enterprises, and to broadening multistakeholder participation in ITU’s work. He is married with one son and two grandchildren.  

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