The ITU and UNESCO have joined forces to set up a Broadband Commission to help address the global digital divide that still exists today. Malcolm Johnson of the ITU provides an overview of the market and the role the Commission hopes to play

For many people across the world, broadband is now such a necessary part of their business and personal lives that doing without it would be unthinkable.

At present, however, millions of people cannot enjoy these benefits because broadband networks might be seen as unprofitable to construct, or, where they exist, access is prohibitively expensive. Broadband subscriptions cost under 2.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in the 40 most connected nations. But at the other end of the scale, in the 30 countries with the lowest level of broadband penetration, subscriptions cost over 100% of per-capita GNI.

Today, broadband has become a key requirement for the creation of the "knowledge societies" that will spur human and economic development.

The good news is that a report issued by the OECD in December 2009 ("Network Developments in Support of Innovation and User Needs") suggests that broadband networks can pay for themselves within 10 years. In Australia, for example, it has been estimated that cost savings in healthcare alone could pay for the National Broadband Network twice over.

For developing countries, the solution is likely to be found in mobile broadband - using a mobile phone to connect to the information society. Indeed, there are now 5 billion mobile phone subscribers in the world. By improving education, medical services, trade and more, broadband Internet access can make a tremendous difference: high-speed networks can lead to high-speed growth.

In the same way that the construction of electricity grids and transport links spurred innovation far beyond the dreams of their builders, high-speed broadband networks stimulate greater efficiency and the creation of new businesses. For society as a whole, they are a platform for progress.

In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks are as critical to social and economic prosperity as transport, water and power networks were in the past. By reshaping the delivery of essential services, rapid deployment of broadband gives a return on investment even where income levels are low, and immense rewards ripple out across multiple sectors of both developed and developing economies.

With these factors in mind, the ITU and UNESCO launched the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in May this year to help encourage government and industry leaders to take action on installing broadband for all. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, and Carlos Slim Helú, Honorary Lifetime Chairman of Grupo Carso, have been appointed to head the Commission. The Secretary-General of ITU, Dr Hamadoun Touré, and Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General, UNESCO, will act as co-chairs.

The Commission also has the support of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will receive its findings at the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit in New York in September. The list of commissioners also includes CEOs from some of the biggest ICT companies, ministers and other individuals who have committed to defining strategies for accelerating broadband rollout worldwide. They will examine applications that will see broadband networks improve the delivery of a huge range of social services, from healthcare to education, environmental management to safety, and much more.

The Commission will also call on leaders from government, the private sector and civil society to work with ITU and UNESCO to develop and allocate resources for the necessary strategies and policies for implementation.

A primary task will be to focus on tools that can help improve urban environments: UN Habitat estimates that in the first part of the 21st century up to 70% of the world's population will reside in urban areas. Thanks to information and communication technologies (ICTs), cities of the future can be safer, cleaner, and more convenient places in which to live. ICTs can, for example, help manage smart buildings that power themselves and then feed energy back into the electricity grid - a smart grid providing much more efficient distribution.

Intelligent transport systems (ITS) can clear our cities of debilitating pollutants and traffic jams. In connected cities you will be directed to the nearest available parking space; GPS-enabled systems will make traffic flow better; and intelligent ambient lighting will appear only when and where it's needed. ITS can also be applied to public transport, to respond more efficiently to customer needs as well as providing the means for electric cars to act as distributed energy storage in network downtime.

Sensor networks and artificial intelligence will become embedded into the physical environment of our cities. Already digital spaces and public problem solving tools are emerging as tools for positive change, and cloud computing offers to power many of these applications.

Urban broadband access for everyone will help to create a level playing field of opportunities for the urban under privileged. Teleworking, already happening today, will only increase as urban environments implement universal access, enabling more flexible and efficient working conditions. ITU's Build On Broadband (BoB) initiative and the Broadband Commission are promoting exactly this kind of fully networked, enabling environment.

International consensus on standards for climate change mitigation and adaptation, environmentally friendly and energy saving technologies, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emission accounting and verification will provide a firm foundation for designers, architects, engineers, developers and government authorities to create sustainable cities.

ITU remains at the forefront of developing these standards and working with our members - the world's governments and ICT companies - and other partners to ensure that as our population becomes more urban, the role of ICTs in the sustainable development is both recognised and utilised.

If supported by smart policies and proper standardisation, ICTs can be a force for good in creating a kinder, more connected, and more colourful world.

Malcolm Johnson is Director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau at the ITU

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