25 February 2010

Africa: Despite Challenges, Developing Countries Making Gains in Technology Access

Although developing countries have made significant gains in access to mobile technology and infrastructure for information and communication technology (ICT) in the last few years, they are still struggling to achieve wide access to high speed broadband services. At the same time, price drops for such technology are not benefitting the world's poorest.

These findings, along with a discussion of statistics for ICT access and prices for services in 169 countries, were presented on 23 February at the United Nations. The statistics are found in a new report by the UN-affiliated International Telecommunication Union (ITU), entitled Measuring the Information Society 2010. While the report states that mobile phone technology penetrated 50 percent of the developing world in 2009, a mere 3.5 percent had access to fixed broadband, or high speed internet access.

Gary Fowlie, the head of the ITU Liaison Office to the UN in New York, explained to MediaGlobal, "why broadband is important is that it makes the ability to provide e-health, e-education, those kind of services, more ubiquitous and more available to all."

Statistics indicate that in low-income countries, the price of ICT services is significantly higher than in rich countries. Last year, ICT prices accounted for approximately 17.5 per cent of gross national income (GNI) per capita, making technology access much pricier in countries with a low per capita income than those with a high GNI. Despite the price and development disparities, infrastructure projects led by entities such as the World Bank have begun to boost the prospects for ICT access in the near future.

One of the report's authors, Susan Teltscher, noted that "the growth is strongest in Africa, generally speaking, but of course they are starting from very low levels." Teltscher, the head of the Market Information and Statistics Division at ITU, went on to point out: "There will be a number of changes also because of the undersea cables that are now connected to East Africa, so we are expecting to see some strong growth on some of the fixed infrastructure numbers."

The report claims that growth of ICT in developing countries is also widespread. China, a country with a massive amount of internet users, helped developing countries reach an internet penetration rate of 18 percent (the number falls to 14 per cent without China). Nevertheless, Teltscher pointed out that China's influence is mainly on the figures of overall penetration, and growth still remains strong in the rest of the developing world.

As Fowlie alluded, the benefits of both ICT development and reliable statistics are vast. ITU data is used to inform the decisions of other UN entities such as the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, and helps industry officials set their social development policies.

"The potential of ICTs as a catalyst for development, whether it's in health or poverty reduction [or] education, is really something we need to continue to analyze and develop good data that will support that in the long term," said Fowlie.

The role of ICT data is also actively being used in the process of trying to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Teltscher said that the ITU data is utilized in the MDG monitoring process, and Fowlie described how the eighth goal calls for the provision of new technologies to poorer countries.

The ITU data does have drawbacks; namely, the information on prices and access are chiefly from 2007 and 2008, with some 2009 figures. Thus, information regarding the impact of the global economic crisis is not fully represented. Nonetheless, the ITU expects strong growth to continue for both rich and poor countries.

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