Leapfrogging development with ICT


In November 2012, two important regional meetings on ICT were held. The first was the Asean ICT Ministers Meeting in the Philippines, which saw the launch of the Asean ICT Masterplan 2015.The second, the Committee on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), was organised by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap) in Thailand.

During the CICT, Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the UN and executive secretary of Unescap, emphasised that ICT is both an engine of economic growth and a valuable source of innovation. The flood of data created by the interaction of vast networks of mobile phones and computers from all over the world creates opportunities to save lives, reduce poverty and enhance inclusive and sustainable development.

The trend of ICT development

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), there were 5.9 billion mobile cellular subscriptions in the world at the end of 2011. In addition, 159 economies have launched commercial 3G services, and the number of active mobile broadband subscriptions has increased to almost 1.2 billion in the same period1. Furthermore, the ITU ICT Price Basket2 shows that, between 2008 and 2010, ICT services have become more affordable and relative prices have come down globally by an average of 18%.

Yet the global Internet penetration rate is just 34% as of June 20123. In the Asia-Pacific region, economies such as Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Nepal have an Internet penetration rate of less than one per cent, while South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand enjoy a rate of more than 65%. Out of the 48 least developed countries (LDCs) in the world, 14, or 30%, are from the Asia-Pacific, where people live on less than US$1.25 (Purchasing Power Parity) per day4.

The importance of improving Internet penetration in LDCs is widely recognised as a vital element of “growth-promoting technology”5, but there has been too little physical investment, human capital and institutional framework in this area nevertheless.

Against this backdrop, while people living in developed countries usually use mobile broadband networks in addition to a fixed broadband connection, mobile broadband is often the only access method available to people in developing countries. Today, there are twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions as there are fixed broadband subscriptions.

Benefits of mobile technologies

In just less than a decade, mobile phone usage had leapt from six to 61 per 100 habitants worldwide. In developing countries, mobile cellular prices have substantially dropped over the last decade by a further 22%.

Emerging broadband technologies can lead to exciting possibilities in education delivery, disaster preparation, e-commerce and health services. In addition, the European Mobile Industry Observatory 2011 Report6 also shows that higher broadband penetration rates enable new business models to be created, allowing businesses to remain internationally competitive while lowering costs in the long run.

One organisation that recognises the value of higher penetration rates is the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has invested US$65mil in the Greater Mekong Subregion through a project known as the Information Superhighway Network. With this network, people living in rural areas now have access to e-government facilities, distance-learning and even the simple act of sending an email.

The ADB also invested an additional US$16mil to the ongoing information highway project of South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation. These initiatives, once completed, will help Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal in their poverty reduction programme and create an environment in which everyone can share in the benefits of sustained and inclusive growth7.

How countries benefit from ICT – the South Korean experience

South Korea is the world’s leading broadband user, and its government continues to invest in several mega ICT projects in order to remain globally competitive. This includes the Korean Advanced Research Network, which aims to promote future network testbeds for sharing research results based on a collaborative relationship among academia, industries and governments.

Additionally, the Trans Eurasia Information Infrastructure Network (TEIN4) has been preparing South Korea and other Asian countries for rapid and closer connectivity with the EU through strengthened and more effective information flows. Under the TEIN4 project, Asean countries can benefit from a more efficient early warning system and timely transmissions of global meteorological data to assist with local predictions of typhoons as well as post-disaster relief support. Other benefits include crop research, where a partnership with the International Rice Institute in the Philippines saw the development of a resilient and climate-proof crop variety. High-resolution GIS data has contributed to vegetation analysis, yield forecast and water resource management.

South Korea can inspire other developing countries on the importance of long-term investment in the ICT meta-infrastructure. The eTEIN KOREN project, for instance, spearheads several innovative initiatives, including the Software Defined Network which provides open-flow switches and control platforms primarily for research purposes, web-based open IPTV, remote medical education services, live-surgery and medical tele-collaboration among as many as nine Asian countries.

China’s deployment of telecommunication networks nationwide

In 2006, China’s Ministry of Commerce launched the Village Engineering initiative, with the goal of providing telecommunication networks to all administrative villages, as well as “natural villages” with more than 20 households. Eight years later, every administrative village and 94.5 % of natural villages have access to telecommunication networks, while 99.7% of its townships have access to broadband. The Village Engineering initiative8 has improved significantly the flow of information between small enterprise owners living in the villages and the cities, as well as enhanced the logistics infrastructure.

Sri Lanka’s adoption of ICT as transformational tool

According to Reshan Dewapura, CEO of ICT Agency in Sri Lanka, his government prioritises accessibility to electronic content as a transformational tool and enabler of socioeconomic development. Massive re-engineering processes involving the administration had taken place, including the Lanka Government Network which aims to connect all governmental organisations for effective and efficient coordination and better decision-making at the ministerial level, and Lanka Gate9, a government service delivery platform and single window access to its many services such as eRevenue License Issuance, issuances of examination certificates and viewing of EPF account balances.

Achieving targets of the World Summit on the Information Society

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is a multi-stakeholder initiative that brought together governments and representatives from the private sector and civil society to discuss ways of delivering the full benefits of ICT to achieve a more inclusive information society. In line with the Millennium Development Goals, the WSIS has agreed to achieve its 10 targets by 2015. The targets include connecting villages with ICT and establishing community access points; connecting universities, colleges, secondary schools and primary schools with ICT; and ensuring that more than half of the world’s inhabitants have access to ICT10.


An ITU report put global Internet user penetration in the year 2000 under one per cent in 72 economies; 10 years later, there were just six economies with Internet user penetration under one per cent. Mobile cellular penetration in the developing world reached 70% at the end of 2010, just six years after the developed world achieved that number. The ITU added that in 2002 there were just two countries in the world with mobile cellular penetration over 100%, while eight years later almost 100 economies had mobile cellular penetration over 100%, with 17 economies enjoying penetration rates above 150%11.

Nonetheless, there is little empirical research to assist policymakers in identifying digital gaps, emerging regional trends as well as socioeconomic impacts of ICT integration into daily life. Research is vital to clarify the role and impact of ICT in rural economic development.

Before 2004, there were no internationally comparable indicator systems to use as a baseline to measure ICT for development. Then an initiative known as the Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development12 was formed, driven by an international partnership involving OECD, ITU, Unesco, the World Bank, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) and the UN regional commissions. The aim was to establish a common set of international ICT indicators to assist governments in measuring the socioeconomic impact of ICT, as well as to assist the private sector in making decisions.

Mobile cellular and mobile broadband subscriptions in the Asia-Pacific region will continue to grow. Research needs to be carried out to measure how emerging ICT applications had helped improve quality of life of the poor, especially in LDCs.

Of course, emphasis on supply alone is not enough; there needs to be stimulus to encourage demand for broadband. The aspects of demand, awareness, attractiveness and affordability need to be addressed by policymakers and service providers before the developing world can truly take advantage of information technology and lift themselves up.

1 www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/ material/ICTFactsFigures2011.pdf
2 The ITU ICT Price Basket is a composite measure based on three tariff sets — fixed-telephone, mobile-cellular and fixedbroadband Internet services — and computed as a percentage of average GNI per capita.
3 www.internetworldstats.com/stats. htm
4 www.unohrlls.org/UserFiles/File/ UN_LDC_Factsheet_053112.pdf
5 http://charleskenny.blogs.com/ weblog/files/oxdevstudspap.pdf
6 www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/ wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ emofullwebfinal.pdf
7 www.adb.org/countries/ subregional-programs/sasec
8 http://wcqx.mofcom.gov.cn/cty
10 www.unescap.org/idd/events/cict- 2012/CICT3-3E-Item6.pdf
11 www.i-policy.org/2011/09/ mobile-penetration-leaps-asinternet- access-still-wobbles-in-97- economies-.html
12 www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/partnership

Lee Khiam Jin is the head of Corporate Affairs and Programme Division, Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) and the Secretary-General of iBurst Association. He was formerly Economic Affairs officer of the Information and Communication Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division at Unescap.

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