Broadband and the World Wide Web as we know it are over 20 years old. The ability to go online, search among multiple URLs (or Uniform Resource Locators) and hyperlinks and find information with a few clicks is a relatively new phenomenon that has changed the world. But still, according to the International Telecommunications Unit (ITU), some 52 percent of the world’s population does not have access to the internet. The broadband connectivity gap arises due to the lack of broadband connection in developing nations.
In lacking broadband, developing nations are also lacking Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) which enable communities to engage with others around the world. ICTs provide ease of cross-national communication and transfers of information and have been successfully implemented by multiple industries including education and healthcare. A study by Ericsson found that social and economic indicators of a country’s sustainability are closely correlated with ICT maturity, suggesting that investing in ICTs can drive social and economic development worldwide.
In 2010, UNESCO and ITU established the Broadband Commission for Digital Development to “boost the importance of broadband on the international policy agenda”. In 2015, the commission evolved into the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development in response to the U.N.’s inception of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). In recognizing the importance of global broadband connection, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development targets four of the seventeen SDGs (education, gender equality, infrastructure, and partnerships) with the objective to reach these goals by 2030.
The Broadband Commission met on September 17, 2017, in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly. In the State of Broadband 2017 Report, the ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao recognized “that accessibility to broadband is increasing with more affordable prices worldwide (but that) by the end of 2017… 3.9 billion people will still not be online and only 17 percent of people in developing countries will be connected.”
While it is projected that 3.58 billion of the global population will be online by the end of 2017 (up from 3.4 billion at the end of 2016) the disparity between developed and developing countries is apparent. Global household connections, for example, display a disparity with “rates varying between 18 percent for Africa and 84.2 percent for Europe in 2017.” But closing the broadband connectivity gap can bring immense benefits to the world: the ITU’s 2017 annual report details that every additional $1 of ICT infrastructure investment could bring a return of $5 in global GDP by 2025.
The developing world accounts for 95 percent of the people facing this coverage gap. In order to address this, the Commission facilitates a discussion between UNESCO countries and leaders across multiple industries on how to achieve global broadband access by 2030. In response to technological advances, the Broadband Commission enforces policy implementation that allows technologies to bring broadband to the benefit of countries experiencing a connectivity gap. Major cities in developing nations are seeing the first effects of broadband because their infrastructure can support it. Of the people who are not currently connected, 1.25 billion live in an area without 3G or 4G mobile coverage. In rural areas with minimal access and insufficient infrastructure, installation of broadband connectivity is necessary for developing technology to support further connectivity and finding solutions for future installations.
Mobile broadband networks, combined with the capabilities of smartphones, have enabled billions of people around the world to connect to voice and internet services. Now, nearly 50 percent of the world’s population has access to the technology needed to use these mobile networks. Leveraging this existing mobile infrastructure, according to the annual report, is the most cost-efficient way to bring more people online. Since 2010, mobile operators have invested $1.2 trillion in capital expenditure as they look to deploy mobile broadband networks and increase capacity. Much of these expenditures focus on developing the necessary infrastructure in remote areas to address the broadband connectivity gap. Digicel, for example, launched 4G services in Papua New Guinea in 2011 and now provides telecommunication services to nearly 500,000 previously unserved people.
The establishment of coverage in areas seeing a broadband connectivity gap is one thing, but bringing effective ICTs to the global community also requires the necessary speed and connection capabilities to encourage a sustainable user habit and contribute to affordability. Stronger connections to broadband networks support faster speeds and ease of access to the internet, which is where the fixed broadband networks come in. The ITU’s annual report highlights two specific satellite technologies that are “challenging conventional assumptions about speed, capacity, and latency.” High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) and Non-Geostationary Orbit Satellites (NGSO) support increased broadband capacity, faster speeds and lower costs for rural, non-connected areas.
HTSs are small satellite devices like balloons or drones that “fly just around 20 to 50 kilometers off the ground and deliver ‘surgically precise’ connectivity to specific locations.” Many established satellite companies like Intelsat, Inmarsat and Eutelsat have already developed connections using HTS technology. NGSOs operate anywhere from 500 to 2,000 kilometers above the earth in clusters that deliver a steady stream of broadband.
Reaching the goal of complete global connectivity by 2030 needs a combination of complementary technologies and policies enforcing their implementation. Notable companies like Facebook and Google have partnered with satellite companies to provide connectivity to some of the hardest to reach areas on the globe. Each new development, partnership and plan of action advances access to broadband for developing countries. These capabilities go further than just providing access to the internet: broadband connections also lend towards developments in maritime research, aviation technologies and energy developments, to name a few. Global connections lead to breakthrough developments in other sectors and will bring developing nations into a new era of invention and close the broadband connectivity gap.
– Eliza Gresh