Broadband's Unfinished Business

The UN Broadband Commission reminded us last week that broadband access is nearly everywhere, and is becoming wireless. Their new report, "State of Broadband 2013: Universalizing Broadband," highlights how mobile broadband is "growing faster than any technology in human history" and how over 70 countries have Internet penetration levels of over 50 percent. Broadband connectivity is facilitating transformational solutions in health care, education, and agriculture, delivering services that improve lives around the world. But the report also reminds us that broadband adoption is far from universal, and there is much more work to do before broadband can improve the lives of the majority of the world's inhabitants.

Current global Internet penetration is at 40 percent, but in emerging countries more than two-thirds of the population is still unconnected -- many in rural areas. And in the world's least developed countries, less than 10 percent of the population has access to the Internet.

While urban areas have the population density to support wired infrastructure investment, global growth in fixed wired connections is slowing -- dropping from 11.6 percent year-over-year (YoY) growth in 2011 to 8.5 percent YoY in 2012. By comparison, growth in mobile broadband subscription is surging (34.7 percent YoY in 2012) and already exceeds fixed wired subscriptions by three times (1).

Part of the difference in growth is due to cost. Wireless infrastructure costs less in low-density areas and that can translate into more affordable prices for consumers. New analysis by the UN Broadband Commission and Cisco demonstrates that urbanization is a critical factor influencing the level of fixed broadband penetration but not mobile/wireless broadband adoption (2).

Where there is no network infrastructure, remote and rural populations can't benefit from the Internet. Market dynamics and regulatory adjustments can encourage private operators to expand their broadband networks, but sometimes, deeper cooperation between public and private entities is needed to connect a remote town or village.

To bridge the rural connectivity gap, wireless networks are needed to extend the reach of the Internet. Organizations such as Inveneo, a non-profit social enterprise, are demonstrating that with creative and innovative approaches, remote wireless networks, including WiFi, which can bring the promise of the Internet to very rural areas.

Inveneo has successfully connected distant communities such as the remote island of Mfangano located at the mouth of the Winam Gulf on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria. There, Inveneo partnered with a local NGO, Organic Health Response (OHR), to design, build and support wireless connectivity that relies on a 90 kilometer, highly directional 5.8 GHz WiFi link (travelling mostly over water) and wholly powered by a hybrid solar and wind electrical system (3). The initial connection served the Ekialo Kiona (EK) center, a computer center, library and training facility available for use by all of the island inhabitants.

These types of projects, in addition to expanding core mobile and wired networks through commercial arrangements, will do much to move the world to a state of universal broadband access.

The UN Broadband Commission's "State of Broadband 2013" report highlights progress made towards achieving the Commission's five goals by 2015:

  1. Making broadband policy universal. Currently 134 countries have national broadband plans.
  2. Making broadband affordable. 95 countries currently have fixed broadband prices at less than the target of 5 percent of monthly GNI per capita.
  3. Connecting homes to broadband. In 2013, 28 percent of households in developing countries have Internet access, while the target is 40 percent.
  4. Getting people online. By 2015, Internet user penetration should reach 60 percent worldwide (currently 39 percent), 50 percent in developing countries (currently 31 percent) and 15 percent in LDCs (currently 10 percent).
  5. Achieve gender equality in access to broadband by 2020. Currently sex-disaggregated statistics are not available, but the Commission's Working Group on Gender identified key recommendations this last week to jump-start progress to achieving this goal.

Expanding broadband adoption will require hard work and innovative solutions but once the Commission's targets are met, broadband's positive impact will much closer to universal.

1. ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database (June 2013)
2. Planning for Progress: Why National Broadband Plans Matter. UN Broadband Commission/Cisco Joint Report. July 2013
3. Read more at http://www.inveneo.org/2012/08/90km-wireless-link-for-mfangano-island/