Looming gap in broadband speed, quality worldwide

Broadband pervasiveness and affordability on rise, but digital divide emerging between high- and low-income countries in terms of speed, capacity and price, ITU reports.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Internet services, especially mobile broadband, have become more ubiquitous and affordable worldwide, yet a new digital divide is unfolding in broadband speed, capacity access and price between high- and low-income countries, according to a new report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

For the second time in a row, the Republic of Korea was ranked the world's most advanced information and communication technology (ICT) economy this year, the organization said in its "Measuring the Information Society 2011" report released Friday. Developed European nations Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland rounded up the rest of top five.

One feature of the annual report was the ICT Development Index (IDI), which ranks 152 countries according to their level of ICT access, use and skills, and compares the 2008 and 2010 scores. ITU said all countries included in the list had improved their scores this year, indicating the increasing pervasiveness of ICT in today's information society.

Most of the countries ranked at the top were from Asia-Pacific and Europe, while those with the most "dynamic" improvements in performance were developing countries, it noted.

Broadband needs "mobile miracle"
According to the ITU, countries that registered the highest gains in the IDI's "ICT use" sub-index were mostly those which achieved a sizeable increase in mobile broadband subscriptions.

The spread of mobile networks in developing countries remained buoyant, with 20 percent growth in mobile subscriptions over the past year and no signs of slowdown, it noted. Penetration in these markets registered 70 percent last year.

Over in developed economies, mobile penetration has hit saturation, averaging over 100 percent in 2010.

Mobile, ITU concluded, is now "de facto ubiquitous", with more than five billion subscriptions and global population coverage of over 90 percent.

Wireless broadband Internet access remained the strongest growth sector in developing countries, growing 160 percent between 2009 and 2010. By end 2010, 154 economies worldwide have launched mobile broadband or 3G networks, it added.

In contrast, dial-up Internet subscriptions have decreased rapidly since 2007. ITU said the "death of dial-up" is expected to become a reality over the next few years.

Disparity in broadband speed, capacity, price
In the report, ITU also highlighted that telecommunication and Internet services globally have become more affordable.

Pointing to its ICT price basket (IPB), which spans 165 economies and combines the average cost of fixed telephone, mobile cellular and fixed broadband services, the union said the price of ICT services has dropped by 18 percent between 2008 and 2010. The biggest drop was in fixed broadband Internet services, where the average price fell by 52 percent, it revealed.

Despite greater affordability globally, ITU noted that disparities between developed and developing countries.

The average price for ICT services in developed countries corresponded to 1.5 percent of the monthly per capita income, as compared to 17 percent in developing countries.

In addition, high-speed Internet connectivity still remained unaffordable in many low-income countries. For instance, in Africa, the average cost of fixed broadband was 290 percent of monthly income by end 2010, down from 650 percent in 2008.

"The mobile miracle is putting ICT services within reach of even the most disadvantaged people and communities," ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure said in a statement. "Our challenge now is to replicate that success in broadband."

There were also "huge differences" in network capacity, speed and quality, ITU pointed out.

In several developing countries, the minimum speed for broadband--256 kilobits per second--while sufficient for e-mail and other basic services, isn't enough for rich data-intensive applications and services, it said.

The average speed of a mobile broadband subscription does not usually match that of a high-speed fixed subscription, and also includes data caps--unlike the unlimited data fixed broadband offers, ITU said. This will present a challenge for developing countries where mobile is the only broadband access technology available to end-users.

"A new digital divide is unfolding between those with high-speed capacity, quality, access--as is the case in many high-income countries--and those with lower speed capacity, quality, access, as in the case in many low-income countries," said Brahima Sanou, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau.

Policy-makers have to act swiftly to facilitate the spread of broadband and ensure that broadband services are faster, more reliable and affordable, he advised.

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