WSIS and the Broadband Divide: Obstacles and Solutions

At the beginning of 2011, there were 5.4 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide, meaning that we have effectively achieved the goal of bringing all of the world's people within reach of the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs). It is a good time for us to take stock, therefore, with just four years left before the 2015 deadline set to achieve the targets set by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in combination with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
It is clear that, while we have made great strides forward over recent years, we still have some way to go. More than two-thirds of the world's people still lack access to the Internet, for example, and many more cannot yet take advantage of the extraordinary benefits of broadband across every sector -- from health to education to poverty reduction to energy efficiency. To accelerate progress and if we are to achieve the WSIS targets and the MDGs we must act now and advocate widely to increase broadband roll-out in all nations.
WSIS was actually a pair of UN-sponsored conferences which addressed issues concerning information, communication and, in the broadest possible terms, the information society. WSIS was organized in two phases, in Geneva in 2003, and in Tunis in 2005, with one of its most important aims being to help bridge the global digital divide between developing and developed countries by increasing access to modern ICT services. The Summit was the most wide-ranging, comprehensive, and inclusive debate ever held on the future of the Information Society and, for the first time, governments, the private sector, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society all worked together hand-in-hand for the common good.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), together with other UN agencies, proactively solicited contributions from stakeholders worldwide throughout the WSIS process, to ensure the inclusive character of the process while also emphasizing the strategic value of a multi-stakeholder approach. Other challenges we faced during the WSIS process included the need to understand the potential of ICTs as a key enabler for socio-economic development; the need to ensure that effective coordination mechanisms at the regional and international levels were established which would also ensure balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches; and the need to ensure global commitment on efforts dedicated towards the development of the Information Society in a timely fashion.
WSIS succeeded in delivering an internationally-agreed upon definition of the Information Society, with specific action lines (covering areas as diverse as capacity building, cultural diversity and building confidence and security in the use of ICTs) to be addressed by each government. The Summit was marked by the strong commitment of governments from around the world to act on implementing and achieving the WSIS targets by 2015. It established an international framework for the coordination of efforts directed towards the development of an inclusive international Information Society worldwide, with agreed coordination and implementation mechanisms at the regional and international levels.
By the time of the Tunis phase of WSIS, there was already a significant global consensus on the principles governing ongoing policy deliberations, and at the close of that summit in November 2005, a breakthrough agreement was achieved on Internet governance, which acknowledged the need for enhanced global cooperation. The importance of strengthened cooperation in the development of globally applicable principles for the management of critical Internet resources was also clearly underlined.
The WSIS process continues today with ITU's global mandate to connect the world, working on behalf of all stakeholders to leverage the power of public-private partnerships and bring the social and economic benefits of ICTs to all of the world's people.
An important part of the WSIS process consists of measuring progress in ICT for development and, last year, in conjunction with the 2010 WSIS Forum and the ITU's World Telecommunication Development Conference, ITU published a comprehensive edition of the ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report which focused explicitly on Monitoring the WSIS Targets.1 The Report reviewed the ten targets, proposed concrete indicators to monitor them and made recommendations on policies and measures to help achieve them -- with specific targets focusing on areas such as connecting villages with ICTs, connecting educational establishments, connecting heath centres, connecting government departments, adapting school curricula, ensuring access to broadcast services, encouraging the development of content, and ensuring that more than half of the world's inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach. The Report reflects a joint effort among several international organizations, coordinated by ITU and including contributions from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as well as from representatives of civil society.
ITU also collects and analyzes data on ICT prices and affordability, and publishes a report entitled Measuring the Information Society,2 which features both the ICT Development Index and the ICT Price Basket, which are valuable tools in measuring ICT development progress. It is particularly encouraging to note that consumers and businesses globally are paying on average 18 per cent less for entry-level ICT services than they were two years ago and more than 50 per cent less for high-speed Internet connections, according to new figures published by ITU in May this year. The next edition of the Measuring the Information Society report will be published in September 2011, and promises to make for very interesting reading indeed.
ITU is also pleased to note that the great majority of economies worldwide -- at least 161, or 84 per cent of the total -- had met the WSIS target of having a national ICT strategy in place by 2010. Now it will be a question of improving existing national e-strategies -- such as their strategic orientation and their integration into national development plans and poverty reduction strategies -- and emphasizing the need for more comprehensive sectoral e-strategies that take full advantage of the potential ICTs have for enabling sustainable social and economic development.
In 2015, ten years after the Tunis Phase of the Summit, there will be an important overall review of the WSIS process. This will be the opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved so far and to identify new trends and paradigms which will help ensure the effective transition from the Information Society to the Knowledge Society.
In the run-up to 2015, ITU continues to pursue the important work of sharing best practices, via the WSIS Stocktaking process, which allows countries to benefit from others' success stories, and to continuously evolve and improve effective strategies for ICT development.
ITU has also been a leader in recognizing the importance of broadband as an enabler in helping to meet the MDGs and the WSIS targets. ITU was pivotal in 2010, together with UNESCO, in launching the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, with the aim of demonstrating that in the twenty-first century broadband networks are basic infrastructure in a modern society, just like roads, electricity or water; that they are uniquely powerful tools for accelerating progress towards the MDGs; that they are remarkably cost-effective and offer an impressive return-on-investment for both developed and developing economies alike; that they underpin all industrial sectors and increasingly are the foundation of public services and social progress; and that they need to be coordinated nationally by governments in partnership with industry, in order to reap the full benefits.
The Broadband Commission is co-chaired by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim, Honorary Lifetime Chairman of Grupo Carso. ITU's Secretary-General, Hamadoun Touré, and UNESCO's Director-General, Irina Bokova, serve as the Commission's co-vice-chairs. There are more than fifty Broadband Commissioners, who are all top-level leaders in their field, representing governments, industry, academia, and international agencies.
The Commission presented its first report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in September 2010, ahead of the MDG Summit in New York. This first report included top-level recommendations -- such as accelerating broadband access for women and girls, and the need to use transparent, fair, competitive, technology-neutral models -- which are designed to serve as a global blueprint for rapid broadband development worldwide. It is pleasing to be able to report that the message continues to spread rapidly around the world.
The Broadband Commission's second, much more detailed report, entitled Broadband: a Platform for Progress, was launched at the Paris meeting of the Commission in June 2011. This report analyzes the challenges and opportunities in deploying broadband, taking into account local needs, financing constraints and technical hurdles, and it makes practical proposals on routes towards deployment of ubiquitous high-speed networks at affordable prices in every country and at every stage of development.
The Broadband Commission's Working Groups look at particular focus areas, such as education, health, public-private partnerships, and youth. The Broadband Commission intends to continue its activities right up to the 2015 target date for the MDGs.
In a world that is moving from the Information Society to the Knowledge Society, it is clearly not easy to separate connectivity from content -- hence the need for innovative approaches to ICT for development as exemplified by the Broadband Commission.
It is interesting to note that the Fourth Conference for Least Developed Countries, (LDC IV), which took place in Istanbul in May 2011, recognized that ICT networks are a vital infrastructure to be supported on a par with power, water, and transportation. That said, the potential for ICT for development needs to be further raised within the UN system, and a clear opportunity to do this will be during the Rio + 20 process, where ICTs should be recognized as a catalyst for development for all three pillars of sustainability -- economic, social, and environmental. This can be achieved by supporting the idea of a United Nations Development Assistance Framework which focuses on ICT for development.
In the twenty-first century, ICTs are an increasingly important element in achieving the common principles of the UN system: peace, human rights, security and development. A World Information Society is predicated on these same principles. Indeed, ICT is providing the first real test of Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
1 Report available for free download at:
2 Report available for free download at: