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“Mobile miracle” out of reach for many

People living in the poorest countries in the world are benefiting from a ‚mobile cellular miracle’ which has seen access to voice and simple data connectivity rise from an LDC average of 1.2% of the population to almost 30% in just ten years. The past decade has also seen significant progress in getting people in LDCs online, with 2.5% average Internet penetration by the end of 2010, compared to under 0.3% in 2001. But that is nothing like enough.

This steep rise in phone connectivity far exceeds the targets set out in the LDC III Brussels Programme of Action, which called for average telephone density in LDCs to reach 5% by 2011.

The democratisation and rapid spread of mobile cellular technology ‚ which, in 2001, was still considered the province of people in wealthy countries ‚ has transformed the ICT landscape in the world’s 48 UN-designated Least Developed Countries, bringing connectivity to almost 250 million people in LDCs.

ITU’s latest analysis of strategies to boost ICT penetration and leverage this to accelerate development in other economic and social sectors was also released at the conference, in the form of two new reports: ICTs and Telecommunications in Least Developed Countries and The Role of ICT in Advancing Growth in Least Developed Countries.

ITU figures confirm that while the number of fixed lines has barely risen in LDCs over the past decade, reflecting global trends, mobile access has mushroomed, with cumulative annual growth rates over the past five years of 42.6% in LDCs compared to just 7.1% in developed countries.

In 2009, only a tiny handful of LDCs ‚ Myanmar, Kiribati, Eritrea and Ethiopia ‚ still had mobile penetration below the LDC III target of 5% ‚ and that number is expected to shrink further by mid-2010.

But still far too few Internet users in LDCs

The past decade has also seen significant progress in getting people in LDCs online, with 2.5% average Internet penetration by the end of 2010, compared to under 0.3% in 2001. But that is nothing like enough, according to ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré, and remains well below the Brussels III target of 10%.

‚People ask me if Internet penetration is really such a high priority for people who, on a daily basis, face a lack of safe drinking water, rising food prices, and a chronic shortage of healthcare,‚ said Dr Tour√©. ‚My answer is a resounding ‚yes’. Because the Internet ‚ and especially broadband ‚ is an extraordinary enabler which has potential to massively expand the effective delivery of vital services, such as healthcare and education. Nowhere is this more important than in countries where people are chronically deprived of these services.‚

In order to help countries better exploit ICTs to drive development, ITU made five key commitments to the conference which have been incorporated into the Istanbul Programme of Action for LDCs 2011-2020.

In brief, they cover:

– actions to increase the average phone density in LDCs to 25 lines per 100 inhabitants and the number of Internet connections to 15 per 100 inhabitants by 2020. – a comprehensive capacity building and digital inclusion programme. – strategies to help LDCs maximize the selection and use of appropriate new technologies, such as broadband, digital broadcasting and next-generation networks. – Assistance in dealing with cybersecurity issues and strategies to build trust and confidence in ICT networks. – Assistance in creating and maintaining a propitious environment for LDC development through an enabling policy and regulatory environment.

Expanded access to ICTs is already bringing services such as mobile banking to tens of millions of people in the developing world, giving them a level of financial power to manage their lives which they have never before enjoyed.

‚There are many reasons to be optimistic,‚ said Dr Tour√©. ‚In the past two years alone we have seen a remarkable surge in national and international bandwidth in developing countries, with several new submarine cables being landed, and new advanced technologies which can help affordably bridge the digital divide. Some of the world’s most disadvantaged countries are already showing what can be achieved with the right combination of political will and innovative public-private partnership.‚

The need to highlight the importance of broadband, particularly at the national level, is the main reason why ITU set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development last year, in partnership with UNESCO.

Identifying innovative ways to get poorer nations connected to high-speed networks will be one focus of ITU’s forthcoming Global Broadband Summit, which will take place in Geneva in October this year, in conjunction with the ITU Telecom 40th anniversary event.

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