Houlin Zhao Issue: Europe 2003
Article no.: 8
Topic: ICT Standardisation – Bridging the Digital Divide
Author: Houlin Zhao
Title: Director
Organisation: Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU
PDF size: 108KB

About author

Not available

 

Article abstract

The telecom industry’s focus on technologies and applications is failing to bridge the digital divide. Standardisation of technologies can help to bridge the digital divide by reducing infrastructure costs to ensure that equitable access to ICT remains possible. Digital inclusion means that individuals, small companies or artisans in the poorest areas of the world can connect to national and even global markets, leapfrogging poor transportation infrastructure and distribution channels, so that distance from markets is no longer a drawback.

 

Full Article

At the ITU Telecom Asia forum in Hong Kong, 2002, a panel of ministers and telecom specialists agreed that the telecom industry’s focus on technologies and applications is failing to bridge the digital divide. It is an accusation that ITU as a whole takes very seriously, and ITU-T with its unique partnership between government and industry is uniquely positioned to address the so-called ‘digital divide’ or technology gap between the rich and poor nations of the world. At last year’s Plenipotentiary Conference of ITU, held in Marrakech, Morocco, ITU-T was asked to help address the standardization gap between developing and developed countries (Resolution COM 5/8). It is the first time that a stand-alone resolution has addressed this issue. This is an area of great importance. Developing nations form a key part of the membership of ITU, and ITU-T has already devoted much energy to addressing the needs of developing nations. Important to this strategy is increasing the regional presence of ITU in developing areas (Resolution 25). ITU-T aims to cooperate with the other ITU Sectors in the organization of information meetings, seminars and workshops, and in the development of case studies, guidelines and handbooks, that will aid in bridging the international digital divide. These tools are aimed at safeguarding the integrity and interoperability of networks, and the dissemination of information and the know-how that will give developing countries the ability to respond to the challenges of privatisation, competition, globalisation and technological change. ITU-T is focused on the oldest task of ITU – developing internationally agreed technical and operating standards and defining tariff and accounting principles for international telecommunication services. The work of ITU-T aims to foster seamless interconnection of the world’s communication networks and systems. In recent years the body’s sphere of activities has extended to cover the wider range of technologies that can be included under the banner of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Standardization of technologies has a crucial role in helping to bridge the digital divide. Standardization can help keep infrastructure costs down by ensuring that competition exists between equipment vendors. Inter-working between network elements is crucial. If a service provider can opt for an end-to-end solution that complies with an internationally recognized standard – rather than a proprietary solution – it means that vendors of those network elements are more likely to offer competitive pricing. Standardization also makes it easier for service providers to make an informed choice about the equipment that they buy. It means that rather than having to rely solely on the sales spiel of a manufacturer they can quote compliance to standards in their calls for tender. Modem over IP (MoIP) is a recent example of the ITU-T standards. It takes into account the needs of operators wanting to continue to support poorer customers while rolling out the next generation services. Dial-up (modem) access continues to be the primary means of access to online services. And its continued support in communications networks is imperative for this reason. Many millions of people have no access to broadband connections, either because they cannot afford them or because the facility is not available. The problem is that, as operators move to IP or packet based networks, modem efficiency will be reduced. MoIP technology ensures that as networks move to a ‘pure IP’ infrastructure they will still be able to efficiently handle calls generated by modems. It will give network providers the ability to deploy IP access Gateways that will provide full coverage for all types of traffic, and ensure that end-users’ Internet access is not affected. Developing countries have increased their participation in ITU-T standardization process over the last few years. Thirty four per cent of participants are now from developing countries. Being part of the ‘standards-making’ process ensures that developing nations can shape standards to their needs. Recently fixed and mobile next generation networks have been very much on the agenda. Next generation fixed network services – broadband – is something that many in the developed world take for granted. More and more web services require a broadband connection. As such, broadband has become a particular concern for developing nations. But in many cases availability is a problem. DSL is not an option in many parts of the world where the basic infrastructure – copper cabling – simply does not exist. Even if it is practical to cable rural villages in Africa for instance, the long distances involved makes DSL an impossibility. Likewise cable companies have never found a profit incentive to cable remote areas or areas where subscription revenues are not likely to be sufficiently high. At a recent ITU-T workshop focusing on ‘Satellites in IP and Multimedia’, many speakers highlighted satellite as a solution to broadband access in developing regions. Mr A Toumi, Director General of the International Telecom Satellite Organisation (ITSO) and keynote speaker described the existence of the digital divide as a calamity that should be the highest priority of the telecom world community. Mr Toumi believes that satellite technology is the key to addressing the gap between rich and poor nations in this respect. Mr Toumi proposes an ITU backed with initiative that will give a worldwide technical standard for broadband satellite. He says that ITU is a natural partnership for the initiative given its global scope. He will formally present his ideas as a proposal to the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS), December 2003. It’s not just affordability that can hamper the developing world’s access to ICT. A joint symposium hosted by the ITU and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and supported by the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC) in 2001, aimed to help give Internet access to a wider global audience. English has become the lingua franca of the information society, which for many only serves to exacerbate the digital divide. Fifty per cent of the content on the Web is in languages other than English. The aim of the Symposium on ‘Multilingual Domain Names’ was to reflect this diversity by suggesting ways in which alternate scripts, other than the Latin based ASCII means of accessing websites currently used, can be built into the Web’s infrastructure. Currently native speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tamil, Thai and other languages have no means of addressing the Web in their own language. The Internet has become a global network of more than 230 connected economies and over 360 million users. It is estimated that two-thirds of all Internet users are non-English speakers, with the greatest expansion coming from Asia and Latin America. It is further estimated that, at least one-third of Web users will prefer to conduct their on-line activities in a language other than English, and that by 2005 only one third of Internet businesses will use English for on-line communication. Some forecasters even predict that, by 2007, Chinese will be the primary language used on the World Wide Web. A number of commercial and private organizations have proposed solutions that enable multilingual domain name use, but no de facto standards have emerged. The ITU and WIPO symposium concentrated on the technical, legal and policy issues relating to the enlargement of the domain name space to support scripts of languages other than English, as well as the intellectual property implications of such developments. Equality of access to the valuable resources provided by the Internet is a key concern for the ITU. And this symposium is just one of many ITU initiatives aimed at addressing the digital divide. Information and communication technologies have great potential in fighting poverty. Yet, the benefits of ICTs are far from having been harnessed. The availability, use and deployment of ICTs vary considerably between rural and urban areas, according to the income level of people, their level of education, their age and their gender. Most analysts predict that the Internet will finally come of age, with a set of web applications, and devices embedded with Internet technology that will fundamentally change the way that we all live. In the developed world that might mean a refrigerator ordering the next bottle of milk and in the developing world it might mean a valuable source of income through a web based enterprise. This is technology that will bring more convenience in the developed world and at the same time will help developing countries bridge the digital divide. Conclusion ICT can connect individuals, small companies or groups of artisans in the poorest and most isolated areas of the world and bring them to the attention of national and even global markets. It makes it possible to leapfrog poor transport infrastructures so that distance from markets is no longer a drawback and inadequate. Complex or costly distribution channels can also become an obstacle of the past, and standardization of networks, systems and services will help to ensure that equitable access to ICT remains possible.