57% of world population still offline

Lynda C. Corpuz
57% of world population still offline
More public-private partnerships should be able to address the digital divide, particularly in developing countries, ICT experts say

CEBU CITY, Philippines – At least 57% of the world’s population, or 4 billion, remain offline, deprived of the economic and social benefits that the Internet can offer, the State of the Broadband 2015 report showed.

Released on September 21 ahead of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit from September 25 to 27 and the parallel Broadband Commission (BC) for Sustainable Development on September 26, the report showed that while access to the Internet is approaching saturation levels in the developed world, the Internet is only accessible to 35% of people in developing countries. (READ: Innovation + SocialGood: Speakers at the 2015 Manila Social Good Summit)

“The report reveals that 57% of the world’s people remain offline and unable to take advantage of the enormous economic and social benefits the Internet can offer,” said a statement issued by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The situation in the 48 UN-designated least developed countries is particularly critical, because over 90% have no Internet access at all, the report added.

“The UN Sustainable Development Goals remind us that we need to measure global development by the number of those being left behind,” said ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao, who serves as co-vice chair of the BC.

Zhao echoed the key findings of the report in a press conference on September 22 for the 3-day Digital Strategies for Development Summit 2015 (DSDS 2015) in Cebu City. “We’re working very hard to make broadband Internet accessible to those who need [it] the most,” Zhao said.

But UN-ITU, a 150-year-old agency that allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develops technical standards, and ensures networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strives to improve access to ICTs (information and communications technologies) of underserved communities globally, is not a lending agency. Thus, Zhao called for more public-private partnerships (PPPs) to bridge the digital divide in developing countries.

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Based on the State of Broadband report, the Philippines ranked 45th of 189 countries with 23.2 active fixed-line broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants as of last year.

Source: UN-ITU and Broadband Commission State of  Broadband Report released September 21, 2015

It ranked 103rd of 189 countries with 28 active mobile-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2014.

Source: UN-ITU and Broadband Commission State of Broadband Report released September 21, 2015

The country ranked 106th of 191 countries with 39.7% of individuals using the Internet. Among 133 developing countries, the Philippines ranked 59th with 26.9% of households with Internet.

Source: UN-ITU and Broadband Commission State of  Broadband Report released September 21, 2015

Zhao said fixed-line broadband or an Internet connection in your home, delivered via phone line or through the provider’s network of cables, might not be realistic to extend broadband connectivity to more remote communities.

“Mobile broadband can be the most pragmatic way to reach remote areas,” he said. Mobile broadband works by connecting to a mobile network with a SIM card.

But while there are people who have mobile phones and are connected to the Internet via 3G, 4G or LTE, majority still do not have access to fast, reliable Internet service, Zhao pointed out.

And in a country like the Philippines, where most of its connected citizens complain about the sorry state of Internet speed and woeful, related services of limited number of telecommunication and Internet service providers, parallel efforts are required to address such issues.

PPP is the best fit to improve and advance the ICT sector in the Philippines, said Seok-Yong Yoon, senior public management specialist for e-governance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). (READ: New Internet speed minimum throwback to ’90s?)

“Public or private, either one of them can’t lead the development of ICT. They have to work together to explore options (to improve ICT infrastructure, Internet connectivity),” Yoon said on the sidelines of the DSDS 2015 conference.

“We need PPP, we can’t rely on the government action only,” Zhao also said.

Free WiFi project

Zhao said the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology-led (DOST) free WiFi access project, which is expected to be rolled out all over the country by the end of 2015, is a government project that without private sector involvement, it would not be possible.

The project targets 7,118 sites, both in urban centers and rural areas, which will have 24/7 free WiFi access. To date, the free service is already available in 14 cities and about 100 municipalities, DOST Undersecretary Louis Casambre said during a recent House hearing.

“More important than connectivity is, ‘how to benefit from it (Internet)?’ So make it more accessible to MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises). Make connectivity accessible to most Filipinos through free WiFi,” DOST Secretary Mario Montejo said during the press conference.

2016 presidential election

As the DSDS 2015 summit focuses on growing SMEs through ICT and how some of their ideas can become the “new technologies” to increase connectivity, Zhao said supporting them through PPPs is also a must, especially as most of them have issues about acccess to capital.

“There are private companies interested to support SMEs. We encourage PPPs to get SMEs into the international platform,” Zhao said. (READ: Bring SMEs to the global arena – UN-ITU chief)

And as the 2016 presidential election in the country nears, and aspirants include improving Internet speed and ICT infrastructure in their early campaign promises, Zhao said, “If a (presidential) candidate doesn’t understand how ICT works to facilitate the socio-economic development in the country, then that may not benefit the people.”

He added: “Election agenda must also pursue ICT development.”

Yoon said reforms should go parallel with other options. “The speed of the Internet, the affordability of the Internet are very critical. The government should  not rely on the reform only.”

“Perhaps the government can introduce mutual exchange points, connectivity investments (because what) if broadband connectivity is improved beyond the cities (but) people in the rural areas don’t how to use it? There’s no one size fits all solution,” Yoon said. – Rappler.com

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