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UN Broadband Commission: Building on the Momentum for Inclusive Development

How to make mobile broadband a transformative technology that improves health, education, livelihoods and gender equality dominated discussions of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development that met in New York on 21 September.

"It is one thing to have the infrastructures and tools, it is another to use them in a profitable manner to empower young people and enhance the delivery of education , health and other services," said Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, co-chair of the Broadband Commission with Mr Carlos Slim Helu, who stressed that the MDGs are a "shared responsibility to which broadband can make a tremendous contribution." 

Setting the stage for the discussion, UNESCO’s Director-General, who serves as co-Vice Chair of the Commission with ITU’s Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré, stated that "broadband and broadband enabled applications are an accelerator and a multiplier, whose global roll-out carries vast potential for inclusive and sustainable development." But for this to happen "requires  effective public policies, innovative alliances with the private sector, vision and planning." 

The vertiginous expansion of mobile technology was highlighted throughout the discussion :  there are 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions today,with a close to tenfold increase to 750 million mobile subscriptions in Africa in less than decade. According to Mr Hans Vestberg, chair of the Commission’s taskforce on Sustainable Development, 92% of world will have mobile coverage in 2018. “Access is not going to transform, it is what we put into the access,” he said, calling for partnerships over borders to leverage technology for sustainable development. 

A strong focus was placed on harnessing broadband and mobile technology to provide marginalized girls and women with quality learning opportunities. Reporting on the Commission’s working group on gender, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark drew attention to the prevailing gender gap in access to ICTs. "Less opportunity to go to school and be literate and a lack of ICT skills are holding women and their families back. Women on average put 90% of their earnings back into their families and communities, so women doing well has multiplier effects. They need access to affordable broadband services; online contents need to be improved and address the needs of most marginalized people.” 

The gender dimension was also highlighted by Geena Davis, special envoy to ITU for women and girls and ICTs. Noting that only 18% of engineering degrees are awarded to women and the gap between education and skills, she announced the creation of the New Engineering University that will enable women to earn masters in big data and undertake careers in Science, Technology and Engineering. 

For the digital revolution to result in development breakthroughs, broadband technology has to be considered as a public good. Stressing this point, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who led the Commission’s working group on health, appealed for stronger support from industry to improve healthcare, underscoring the need for mobilizing resources around the right strategies. “Scaling up community health workers would be the most powerful single step to make a difference, through smartphones connected to clinics and health experts. Otherwise we will not go further.” 

Released at the meeting, the Commission’s State of Broadband report finds that mobile broadband is the fastest growing technology in human history and features country-by-country rankings based on access and affordability for over 160 economies worldwide.