As the world moves towards a global Information Society, countries are now aware of the central importance of extending access to information and communication technologies to their populations.
Both, the Millennium Declaration, as well as the World Summit on the Information Society, acknowledge that ICTs are an important tool to achieve development goals: they can help alleviate poverty; improve the delivery of education and health care; make government services more accessible; and much more. With the growing recognition of ICTs as an effective tool for social development and economic growth, there are ever-greater incentives for countries to foster higher access levels and to overcome the digital divide, the gap that exists between those with and those without access to ICTs.
Countries’ desire to increase the availability of ICTs has highlighted the growing need for reliable, comprehensive and comparable statistical information. To appropriately tackle the digital divide, it is crucial to overcome the statistical divide. This is important on a national level to help governments identify their progress, their strengths and their weaknesses, so as to tackle and finally overcome barriers to wider and better access to ICTs.
The right set of indicators and benchmarks further help governments identify targets and adopt policies accordingly. At the same time, these statistics are used to make international comparisons and allow governments to assess their performance objectively, identify realistic targets and create pressure for improvement. International comparisons and benchmarking are important in facilitating the chain from statistics, to knowledge, to policy.
As the UN organization in charge of telecommunications and ICTs, ITU has a clear mandate to objectively analyze countries’ progress in the area of ICTs and to highlight those countries that risk falling behind. Only a global picture and our in-depth knowledge of ICT developments will allow us to do so.
Take Africa, for example. It remains the region with the highest growth rate in mobile subscribers. Within a year, the continent added no less than 65 million new mobile subscribers to its subscriber base and by today, mobile penetration has risen to over a fourth of the population. I think I am not exaggerating that even five years ago, people would not have believed this to be possible. These developments are not only encouraging but also show that Africa is ready for technology and ready for business.
At the same time, we need to see these trends in perspective. Globally, the stakes have risen and the criteria by which success is measured is changing. Two decades ago, achieving a teledensity of one per one hundred inhabitants represented a major milestone, but today's benchmarks of achievement are much higher. The rest of the world has not stopped and is moving ahead with strong investment and the adoption of new technologies. So while Africa has made impressive gains in access to ICTs, it can do even better. Our data suggest that broadband is still the exception, bandwidth remains too limited, and tariffs too high. In Africa, Internet tariffs - as a percentage of national income - are so high that most people can not afford to go online. A major barrier too is the lack of Internet access and computers in households.
Based on this information, governments can adopt short and medium-term policies accordingly, for example, by promoting alternative and affordable access locations, including public Internet access centers and schools. This information allows us to formulate appropriate policy measures such as a deeper reform process, the liberalization of international gateways, the licensing of wireless broadband technologies, the sharing of infrastructure and the reduction of taxes, to address barriers to higher ICT levels.
Our statistics not only help policy makers to review progress and put their achievements into perspective; but they are also critical for the private sector. ITU data help identify market potential and investment opportunities and attract businesses, for a win-win situation.
While ITU fully assumes its central role in monitoring ICT developments in the area of infrastructure and households, a truly global and inclusive Information Society can only be realized through a global partnership. It is also very encouraging to see that more and more countries have started to collect information on the number of households with access to, and use of, ICTs. We are also seeing increasing cooperation between ICT policy makers, including the regulatory authorities and Ministries, and the National Statistical Offices, in identifying indicators and collecting information. This cooperation is important to combine policy needs with technical expertise.