Every year 17th May has been celebrated as World Telecommunications & Information Society Day (WTISD) since 1969. It marks the signing of the international telegraph convention and founding of ITU in 1865.
Theme for this year WTISD
Every year ITU announces the theme for the WTISD and sets the tone for the focussed efforts in achieving this goal. This year’s theme for WTISD is ‘unique opportunity to showcase the work ITU does, together with its members and partners, to support Least Developed Countries (LDCs)’. This year ITU will focus on ’empowering the least developed countries through information and communication technologies’. On May 17, 2023, ITU calls on the public and private sector to make pledges for universal connectivity and digital transformation in these countries.
Which countries are LDCs?
There are currently 46 economies designated by the United Nations (UN) as LDC entitling them to preferential market access, aid, special technical assistance and capacity building on technology among other concessions. The LDCs are distributed among the following regions: Africa 33, Asia 9 (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Yemen Republic, Timor- Leste, Cambodia and Lao People’s Democratic), Caribbean (1) and Pacific (3)
Present status of ICT technologies in LDCs
The digital connectivity divide, separating the globe’s least developed countries from the world as a whole, shows no sign of narrowing. In fact, it is widening on key factors. Though the share of the population in LDCs using the internet has increased since 2011 from 4 per cent to 36 per cent, about two-thirds of the LDC population remains offline. LDCs also still face numerous barriers to meaningful connectivity including lack of infrastructure, affordability and skills. The gap between LDCs and the world in the share of people using the internet has increased from 27 per cent points in 2011 to 30 per cent points in 2022.
An estimated 407 million people in LDCs were using the internet in 2022. The 720 million people still offline in LDCs represent 27 per cent of the global offline population, although the LDC population accounts for only 14 per cent of world population.
Only 83 per cent of the combined LDC population is covered by mobile broadband signal 3G or above, the main way to the internet in most developing countries. This compares with 95 per cent coverage for the overall world population.
The cost of using internet service inches downward across the globe in 2022. Accessing the internet is more costly in LDCs than anywhere else in the world.
The path of prosperity for the world’s least developed countries runs through digital development, said ITU secretary General. According to ITU, the challenge of getting communities online has become more complex over the last decade than constructing physical connections.
For LDCs, the goal of universal and meaningful connectivity- when a safe, satisfying, enriching, productive and affordable online experience is available to all- remains a distant prospect. Even many of those who can access the internet do not, because of the barriers ranging from awareness, to skills, to costs.
The ITU special report reveals the tremendous digital diversity of LDCs, which implies different priorities and calls for different solutions. The world’s least developed countries are the planet’s greatest untapped resource. Connectivity can contribute to addressing the challenges faced by LDCs and help them achieve sustainable digital transformation.
1. The digital gender gap in LDCs remains significant and is not narrowing
2. Only half of young people in LDCs (15-24 year old) were online in 2022
3. Just over a quarter of the population in rural areas in LDCs was online in 2022.
There are challenges confronting LDCs and commitments should be strengthened between LDCs and their development partners.
Internet access is increasingly recognised as a prerequisite for global development, including fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Universal connectivity is a key priority in the UN Secretary General’s roadmap for digital cooperation, which aims to build a more open, free and secure digital future for all.
Contribution of telecom service providers in providing ICT services in LDCs
1. Airtel is providing telecom services in Bangladesh which is a LDC. It has presence in fourteen African countries in which nine are LDCs.
2. Vodafone has pledged to invest $190 million over the next five years to increase 4G mobile coverage to an additional 80 million people in Africa.
3. India has developed 4G indigenous technology following Athmanirbharatha doctrine. The consortium led by CDOT, TCS, Tejas and other members, has developed this technology and BSNL is going to launch 4G service based on this technology shortly. This will be further upgraded to 5G. India’s indigenously developed 4G/5G stack is attracting attention in the global market. India can help LDCs in providing 4G services with the technology developed in our country.
4. DOT/BSNL has vast experience in providing telecom facilities in backward, hilly, remote, rural and inaccessible areas. Under the BAHAR project, DOT provided telecom facilities in backward, hilly and remote areas through satellite media. For connecting the places in Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands on satellite medium, DOT established Satellite Earth stations at these places. Through VSAT connectivity BSNL is providing data communications at remote places. BSNL is providing Satellite Phone Service using INMARSAT’s technology. The GSPS (Global Satellite Phone Service) gateway located at Ghaziabad is used for this service. The satellite phones are given to government agencies like police, railways, BSF and teams handling disasters. BSNL laid Optical Fiber (OF) cable to Andaman and Nicobar islands from Chennai in the Bay of Bengal for providing high speed internet access. The work is in progress to lay such cable to Lakshadweep islands from Kochi in the Arabian Sea. BSNL has vast experience in laying OF cable in rural, rocky, slushy and forest areas. It is providing high speed internet on FTTH (Fibre to the Home) even in rural areas on OF cable. Wherever fibres can’t be laid, it is providing Bharat Air Fibre service (unique to BSNL) which is a wireless connectivity using unlicensed spectrum. In this service, Line of Sight (LOS) radio waves are used to serve villages near the exchange. Internet speed is up to 100 Mbps in this Bharat Airfiber service. BSNL has installed wifi hotspots at major tourist centres, bus stations and rural telephone exchanges for providing high speed internet service.
BSNL can gainfully utilise this know-how and vast experience, for providing ICT services in LDCs where challenges in providing ICT services are quite similar to that of backward, hilly, remote, inaccessible and rural areas of our country. It can start this mission with LDCs of Asian countries, preferably neighboring ones. NTIPRIT and BSNL training centres can impart training in LDCs to improve their skill sets in ICTs.
Government and countries cannot achieve sustainable development alone. The private sector can play a big role. Let us hope that the governments and the private sector in developed and developing countries will join hands in empowering the people of LDCs by developing information and communication infrastructure in these countries. Investment in these young, vibrant countries can drive sustainable growth for generations.
(The author is a former Advisor, Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India)