Photo: Delegates at the CTO Group Meeting at Connect Asia-Pacific summit 2013 | Credit: ITU | I.Wood - Photo: 2013

Social Equity Key To Asia’s ‘Mobile Revolution’

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BANGKOK (IDN) – Opening the Connect Asia-Pacific Summit of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the Thai capital, secretary general Dr Hamadoun Touré remarked that the conference was about putting the “feet on the accelerator in the quest to embrace broadband” but also warned that it needs to add value to the lives of the ordinary citizens.

The Summit – the last of the regional gatherings organized by ITU since 2006 – included some 554 participants from 37 ITU Asia-Pacific Member States, including 7 Heads of State or Government, 30 Ministers, deputy ministers and Ambassadors. A total of 88 Project Proposals were submitted for funding and the Summit identified a market opportunity of approximately 53 billion USD by the roll out of broadband services in the region.

As customary in ICT forums these days, there was much hype about the potential of the so-called “mobile revolution” to bring prosperity to people everywhere in the region. Yet, there were also many speakers who cautioned against such hype.

According to ITU figures, in 2013, there are almost as many mobile-subscriptions as people in the world. Today, mobile cellular penetration rates stand at 96% globally; 128% in developed countries; and 89% in developing countries.

This was just a ‘pie in the sky’ a decade ago because in the year 2000, mobile cellular penetration was just under 40% in the world’s richest countries, and mobile penetration in this region was just 6.4%. But today, a total of 3.5 billion (89%) out of the global 6.8 billion subscriptions are from the Asia-Pacific region. In Thailand, mobile cellular penetration is approaching 130%.

“We are in the middle of a ‘Digital New World’, full of possibilities as well as uncertainties,” noted Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in an opening keynote address to Connect Asia-Pacific Summit on November 18, adding: “A well informed citizen is the backbone of a strong democracy.”

She pointed out that ICTs have been very useful for education in the kingdom and the use of computer tablets has led to wider and more effective education. “In Thailand, the government has also made these policies one of our top priorities. We have distributed computer tablets with educational software to schoolchildren. We are enhancing ICT capabilities and coverage in schools and promoting long-distance learning,” she said, adding: “This should be a basic right, like other basic public utilities, such as water and electricity.”

Promising and Problematic

This was also a theme taken up by another keynote speaker, Singaporean Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). “Our shared digital future is both promising and problematic. Promising, because effective use of ICT innovation can offer unprecedented opportunities to create, adapt, store and share information that promotes E-quality,” she noted.

“This ICT-enabled future is, at the same time, problematic because the benefits of new technologies are not equally benefiting all people. The Asia-Pacific region is now not only the most technologically divided in the world, this divide has also continued to widen over time.”

While ICTs could be an innovative force for transformation, she warned, “the ‘digital divide’ is in fact an income divide, a gender divide, an educational divide and a knowledge divide. Rising inequality – both income and non-income – poses one of the greatest challenges in Asia and the Pacific, and these are the gaps that need to be addressed.”

Professor Tim Unwin, Secretary-General, Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), another keynote speaker, warned of the same problem: “Envisioning is about not only having a vision for the future, but also the capacity and enterprise to be able to deliver it,” he argued. “The last decade has been one of hope and aspiration. It has shown what is possible; it has also shown what we have not yet been able to deliver.”

Prof Unwin pointed out that the region needs to address how isolated rural areas of mainland Asia and small island nations of the Pacific could be connected to the broadband superhighways that are being constructed across the region.

President Emanuel Mori of the Federated States of Micronesia said exactly that in his speech to the Summit. “(We) are a Small Island Developing State, whose small population is scattered across many islands spread over one million square miles in the western and central Pacific Ocean. With this geographical make-up, my country faces formidable challenges in its ongoing nation-building endeavors. I believe ICT can be used to overcome some of these challenges, especially in minimizing the risks of natural disasters, including climate change.”

He added: “I am very mindful of the costs of putting in place the necessary ICT infrastructures in light of our economy of scale, limited financial resources and human resource capacity. Until we can identify a way forward in addressing these challenges, we can only marvel at the advancement of ICT, which the developed countries are currently enjoying.”

Hiem Phommachanh, Minister of Posts and telecommunications of Laos, a landlocked country, hit a similar note. “More than half of our population live in rural areas where the broadband penetration is less than 10 percent and there are many rural areas still unconnected even for very basic telecom services.” he pointed out. “Due to our geographic difficulties private sector is facing problems in extending infrastructure to rural areas.”

Ahmad Shabery Cheek, Malaysia’s minister of Communications and Multimedia argued that investing huge resources to just give people access to ICTs and broadband is not enough. Referring to the Smartly Digital Asia-Pacific 2020 Vision statement adopted by the Summit, he argued that how you use ICTs and for what purpose is also important.

“Malaysia suggest that when we do it, we must gauge the level of value creation resulting from our digital inclusion policies … barometer we believe is whether all our collective efforts have led to technology becoming so much part of peoples life and they are no longer not amazed by what people can do,” he argued.

One may question the hype these days about the value of ICTs, broadband and the mobile phones as a development tool, without the necessary investments in the physical infrastructure to make it possible for the application of knowledge to improve the quality of life of the people. For example would e-health work without health centres in the community or e-agriculture without proper farming or land policies to help farmers working on the field?

An innovative project

South Korea has been ranked number 1 in the world for ICT applications and access. Dr Eu-Jun Kim, a Korean, who is also the regional director for Asia-Pacific of ITU argues that her country has achieved this ranking exactly because it had the physical infrastructure to apply the knowledge to improve peoples living standards.

“Why Korea became number 1 is not access. Access in Hong Kong and China is better, Singapore is even better than Korea … it’s combination of use and skills. How you use it in a more creative innovative manner to make it a bit more beneficial and useful,” she told IDN. “The advantage of Asia is the passion of the parents for kids’ education… you can use this mentality and culture to educate the people for the skill set.”

She referred to an innovative project in Sri Lanka, where 25 remote schools that have not even seen a computer before, were connected in a pilot project three years ago with a special training package designed by Intel. This was a joint venture between ITU and the education department.

Next month (December 2013) ITU will be connecting telecentres in the area to these schools, where they are transforming schools into community centres. “We introduced the telecentre into schools, especially in rural areas, where a school can be converted into a community centre, that kids, students, teachers and parents can use,” explained Dr Kim.

She argues that governments have a very important role to play in the 2020 Vision, in terms of framing policy and strategy, and then ensuring it acts as the regulator of the sector. “Private sector can do on their own wherever the business model works, but same time, the government could utilise an universal access fund to reach out to the unconnected … it’s a partnership … end of the day you should not forget about the important element – the people. If there is no demand from the people what’s the point industry going in rural areas?” asks Dr Kim.

To make ICTs useful for rural populations, there needs to be software that can be used in the local language. Dr Kim’s office has been working with software developers such as Microsoft, to link them with countries such as Myanmar, Laos and even Korea to develop software in the local language. At the Connect Asia-Pacific Summit, Cambodia proposed a project to develop software for harnessing and preserving national heritage and ancient cultures through ICTs, while Micronesia wants to use ICTs to promote the tourism industry in the small island states.

“We need to provide countries with equal footing,” argues Dr Kim, and at the end of the day appropriate software in the local language and proper cultural context is as important as rolling out broadband across countries.

*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 28, 2013]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Top left photo: Delegates at the CTO Group Meeting at Connect Asia-Pacific summit 2013 | Credit: ITU | I.Wood

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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