Friday, September 28, 2012

Broadband Commission for Digital Development: State of Broadband 2012

The International Telecommunication Union's Broadband Commission for Digital Development recently published its State of Broadband 2012 report, providing an interesting snapshot of developments worldwide and underlining the importance of broadband investment:
"Broadband is today a critical infrastructure in the growing global digital economy, and countries that fail to invest in broadband infrastructure risk being excluded from today’s online economy, as well as the next stage of the digital revolution and future Internet."
Some striking facts and figures:
  • Worldwide, mobile phone subscriptions exceeded 6 billion in early 2012, with three-quarters of those subscriptions in the developing world (ITU, 2012).
  • There were 589 million fixed broadband subscriptions by the end of 2011 (most of which were located in the developed world), but nearly twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions at 1.09 billion.
  • Worldwide, the total number of smartphones is expected to exceed 3 billion by 2017 (Ericsson, 2012), with the number of smartphones sold in Africa and the Middle East expected to increase four-fold from 29.7 million units sold in 2011 to 124.6 million by 2017 (Pyramid Research).
Broadband has many benefits for education, but these are taking a little longer to be realised than might have been anticipated:
"Whereas serious attention has been devoted to mHealth, mAgriculture and mPayments, mEducation or mLearning is taking a little longer to come to fruition. National investments in education are a solid and consistent predictor of economic growth (Rodrik, 2000). One report concludes that one additional year of school can be directly associated with a 30% increase in per capita income20. With the advent of cheaper tablets and smartphones, the world is realizing the potential of broadband to enable access to education from anywhere and anytime via mobile devices. Cloud technology also promises to offer even greater opportunities for mLearning and improving educational outcomes."
mLearning has significant potential for developing countries:
"mLearning is especially meaningful in developing countries and in rural areas, where infrastructure is poor and access to resources may prove a challenge. mLearning provides anytime, anywhere educational content delivered via mobile technology. Mobile phones are truly unique in their ubiquity, accessibility and affordability. mLearning differentiates itself from e-learning in the sense that it is independent from any fixed infrastructure. mLearning can range from simple SMS messaging, MMS live classroom sessions, web and podcasting to audio-to-text or text-to-audio applications. It provides rich learning experiences via educational video, logical reasoning and problem solving games, and even mobile whiteboards for interactive discussions. In developing countries, only 25% of homes have computers, so perhaps the most important benefit of mLearning is its potential to reach people through devices which, before long, will be in the pockets of every person on the planet. The most up-to-date content can be accessed immediately and from anywhere and repeatedly reviewed for better understanding. Although most mLearning happens today via feature phones, our imaginations are inspired by the greater possibilities of higher bandwidth (e.g., live tutoring via a mobile device)."
The report highlights a number of successes and innovations to date:
"New tools and concepts can be applied to learning, through the development of a largely virtual ‘augmented classroom’ through which students can interface with educators, as well as others. The recent success of the Khan Academy (where volunteers post short videos to illustrate or explain basic concepts in mathematics, physics, economics or other subjects) is an example of how social media, online webcasts and education can educate and inform large populations. The impact of such approaches would grow exponentially with broadband. Open courseware and models (e.g., those pioneered by OCW at Harvard) can increase the number of students around the world and help promote multilingual and localized versions of the same content. Interactive education can become a reality (e.g. the growing use of tablets in primary and secondary schools in Singapore), fostering local talent bases."
Broadband's new collaboration opportunities apply globally and are key to innovation:
"Innovation through collaboration (crowd-sourcing and crowd creativity, for example) can generate an unprecedented environment for ‘Globally Engineered Serendipity’ (GES). As confirmed by recent innovation benchmarks (such as the WIPO-INSEAD Global Innovation Index released in July 2012), the ability of experts in different areas to interact is key to innovation, especially in its early stages. Until recently, ‘cross-fertilization’ of ideas would typically happen in a serendipitous fashion, on university campuses. Broadband offers a brand new way to engineer and systematize such an approach at the global level. Hence the phrase of ‘Globally Engineered Serendipity’. In conclusion, broadband is both the source of need for new skills, and the potential producer of many of those skills."
Many nations now recognise the importance of broadband and are making plans accordingly, however there remains more to do:
"The importance of national policy leadership is now clearly understood by policy-makers and Governments around the world. Today, some 119 or 62% of all countries have developed a national plan, strategy, or policy to promote broadband; and a further 12 countries or 6% are planning to introduce such measures in the near future...However, 62 countries do not have any form of broadband plan, strategy or policy in place."
The report also acknowledges that "achieving progress in implementation may be more challenging or slower than anticipated", and that a small but growing number of countries are including broadband within their definitions of universal service. Some interesting commentary on the future for satellite broadband services too:
“Some observers perceive today’s satellite solutions as lagging fibre and wireless technologies in latency, mass throughput, and cost per bit delivered. However, today’s satellite technologies can be very advanced in terms of reliability, speed of deployment, and security, while the next generation will deliver higher transmission speeds competing with other broadband technologies in speed and costs.”
“…the next generation of satellites is under procurement and will deliver higher transmission speeds, potentially competing with other types of broadband connectivity both in terms of speeds and costs. New technologies are being developed to fully integrate the Ku-band and L-band, offering maritime and aeronautical users a compelling combination of high speed broadband with increased bandwidth and speeds of up to 50 Mbps delivered globally via compact and affordable terminals at reasonable cost – e.g., via fixed fee unlimited data packages.”
Affordable 50Mbps services available anywhere are not to be sniffed at? A commentary from Intel's World Ahead Programme illustrates the importance of affordability:
"In fast-growing developing countries (such as Brazil, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Russia), broadband access can account for 60-80% of the TCO of a PC. Often, only about 20% of citizens could afford the monthly plans."
Intel therefore took the following approach:
"We decided to pick eight countries for a pilot study of prepaid broadband with entry-level PCs. Working together with telecommunication companies, PC manufacturers and, in some cases, governments, Intel made available bundles of entry-level notebooks, compelling content, and prepaid broadband, accompanied by exciting advertising, branding and marketing."
This proved highly successful; one of the pilot countries was Vietnam:
"The major telcos, Viettel and VNPT, offered 700 MB of data download for just $2 prepaid. At that price, broadband affordability surged from 12% to 70% of citizens. We launched the offer in June 2011 and had sold 150,000 packages in just three months. To put that in perspective, sales of PCs in Vietnam are typically about 140,000 per month. The additional 150,000 over 3 months represented a 30% increase. More importantly, this helped lower-income citizens, who might otherwise never have been able to afford a PC and broadband."
Finally, some striking figures illustrating the globalisation of the Internet:
"In terms of users, English and Chinese dominate the Internet, accounting for 27% and 24% of total global Internet users respectively, with Spanish a distant third (8% of Internet users). Indeed, if current growth rates continue, the total number of Internet users accessing the Internet in Chinese may overtake the number of Internet users predominantly using English in 2015."

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