ITU and the digital divide

Digital divide is a term that refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology, and those that don’t or have restricted access. This technology can include the telephone, television, personal computers and the Internet. Well before the late 20th century, digital divide referred chiefly to the division between those with and without telephone access; after the late 1990s the term began to be used mainly to describe the split between those with and without Internet access, particularly broadband.

The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content.

The reality of a separate-access marketplace is problematic because of the rise of services such as video on demand, video conferencing and virtual classrooms, which require access to high-speed, high-quality connections that those on the less-served side of the digital divide cannot access and/or afford. And while adoption of smartphones is growing, even among lower-income and minority groups, the rising costs of data plans and the difficulty of performing tasks and transactions on smartphones continue to inhibit the closing of the gap. According to recent studies and reports, the digital divide is still very much a reality today. Proponents for closing the digital divide include those who argue it would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.

The International Telecommunication Union

Since 1865, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been at the centre of advances in communications – from telegraphy through to the modern world of satellites, mobile phones and the Internet. The International Telecommunication Union or ITU (French Union Internationale des Télécommunications), originally the International Telegraph Union (French Union Télégraphique Internationale), is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is responsible for issues that concern information and communication technologies, an extensional term for information technology (IT) that stresses the role of unified communications and the integration of telecommunications (telephone lines and wireless signals) and computers, as well as necessary enterprise software, middleware, storage, and audiovisual systems, that enable users to access, store, transmit, and manipulate information. It is the oldest among all the fifteen specialised agencies of the United Nations.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the ITU coordinates the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promotes international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world, and assists in the development and coordination of worldwide technical standards. The ITU is active in areas including broadband Internet, latest-generation wireless technologies, aeronautical and maritime navigation, radio astronomy, satellite-based meteorology, convergence in fixed-mobile phone, Internet access, data, voice, TV broadcasting, and next-generation networks.

ITU and the digital divide

Mobile phones and Internet access are powerful tools in supporting advances in developing countries. But ITU statistics put into sharp focus the digital divide that continues between countries, and within national borders among various social groups. The need to support the expansion of telecommunications has long been recognized. In 1952, ITU became an official participating organization in the UN Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance.

In 1949, with the creation of the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA), the United Nations General Assembly created a mechanism for the participation of specialized agencies – the Technical Assistance Board (TAB). The Board was comprised of the executive heads (or their representatives) of the UN and its specialized agencies and was the forum where technical assistance requests were discussed, progress reports given, and agency programmes presented. The TAB then made recommendations on the total programme to a Technical Assistance Committee (TAC) of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). TAC would approve the overall programme and then the projects would be initiated when multilateral or bilateral instruments were signed. Starting in 1949, “Basic Agreements” were signed between governments and TAB on the general rules governing the provision of technical assistance. Supplementary Agreements were signed between the UN, the specialized agencies and the requesting governments for individual projects.

The aim was to recruit and send experts to developing countries to help in various technological fields, as well as to support the training of local personnel. In 1959, ITU took over the management of its technical assistance schemes for telecommunications, with a department for that purpose created the following year. The UN Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance was merged with the UN Special Fund, forming today’s United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, which began operation in 1966. ITU’s collaboration with UNDP increased markedly from that period. Alongside the objectives of improving technical, administrative and human resources in developing countries, the goal was to promote the expansion of networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America (as well as regional networks there and in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East). From the 1970s, projects such as the Pan-African Telecommunications Network (PANAFTEL) and the Middle East and Mediterranean telecommunication master plan (MEDARABTEL) were implemented.

An important step forward was taken in 1982, when the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference held in Nairobi set up the Independent Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development. It began work in 1983 and submitted its report in 1985. Officially titled The Missing Link, and also known as the Maitland Report, the report showed how access to telecommunications correlates with economic growth – but also drew international attention to the huge imbalance in such access between developed and developing countries.

In response to the ground-breaking report, ITU held its first World Telecommunication Development Conference in 1985, in Arusha, Tanzania. In 1989, the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Nice recognized the importance of placing technical assistance to developing countries on the same footing as its traditional activities of standardization and spectrum management. To this end, it established the Centre for Telecommunication Development (later incorporated into ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau in 1991). Bridging the digital divide was confirmed as a priority for ITU at the Marrakesh Plenipotentiary Conference in 2002, which also authorized ITU to take a leading role in the preparations and follow-up of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

WSIS was the first ever gathering of global leaders to address how best to create a safe and truly inclusive information society. The summit was held in two phases: in 2003 in Geneva and in 2005 in Tunis. Participants came from one hundred and seventy-five countries, including some fifty Heads of State and Government and vice-presidents. Its outcome documents, including the Geneva Plan of Action and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, address such issues as the use of information technologies for development; cybersecurity; affordable access to communications; infrastructure; capacity building, and cultural diversity.

The summit also resulted in the multi-stakeholder WSIS Forum, held annually since 2009 to review progress in achieving the summit’s goals. As another follow-up to WSIS, the Connect the World series of regional conferences was launched by ITU to mobilize technical, financial and human resources for telecommunication development. The first event was the Connect Africa Summit, hosted by Rwanda in 2007. ITU holds regular seminars and training events, and since 2000 it has organized the annual Global Symposium for Regulators. This provides a unique meeting place for regulators and policy-makers from both developed and developing countries. Efforts to encourage greater participation by developing countries in creating and adopting technical standards are focused on ITU’s Bridging the Standardization Gap programme, established in 2008.