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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2642

World's Poorest Nations Slowly Get Online

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 20 September, (IPS): An African diplomat from one of the world's 50 poorest nations, described as least developed countries (LDCs), once complained that it took about five to 10 years to get a landline telephone connection in his home country -- and an additional five years to get a dial tone on the new phone.

But since the widespread availability of hand-held cellular phones over the last five years, most of the world's LDCs have made a quantum leap forward from one extreme to another: from no landline phones to an abundance of wireless phones.

In its landmark Brussels programme of action (BPoA) adopted at a conference of LDCs in the Belgium capital in May 2001, the United Nations set a target for infrastructure development: increasing average telephone density in LDCs to five main lines per 100 inhabitants and internet connections to 10 users per 100 inhabitants by the year 2010.

In a report to the two-day high level meeting on LDCs Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says "access to telephones and computers in LDCs has increased rapidly, suggesting that targets for telephone density and internet connections in the BPoA might be met."

"Dissemination of these technologies has reached rural areas and even the poorest," Annan said, pointing out that evidence suggests that use of such technologies has had a direct impact on poverty through various channels.

Although "LDCs remain far behind the rest of the world in the use of new technologies," he noted, "the recent progress demonstrates the speed with which information and communications technologies can be introduced, and how they can improve the welfare of individuals in LDCs, including by reducing poverty and gender inequality."

In 2000, there were only 17 LDCs with one or more internet connections per 100 inhabitants. In 2006, internet use has grown by three to 10 times, although still below one per 100 in 25 LDCs, according to the latest figures released Friday by the United Nations.

In a study released in July, the Geneva-based U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said LDCs still suffer from infrastructure weaknesses.

Speaking on behalf of the 25-member European Union (EU), Finnish Labour Minister Tarja Filatov told delegates Monday that strengthening and expanding the productive capacities and infrastructure of the LDCs is necessary for regional integration, increased internal and international trade and economic growth and development.

To meet these challenges, she said, the EU has adopted a new "Strategy for Africa" which includes an initiative on an EU-Africa Partnership for Infrastructure. This partnership will include investments in electronic communications infrastructure and services.

Meanwhile, the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) says that "teledensity has more than doubled in the majority of LDCs since 2000, with some of them boosting connectivity by as much as 20 times." The rapid growth is attributed primarily to the deployment of mobile technologies.

The race towards universal access in LDCs has been mainly led by LDCs such as Cape Verde, Maldives and Samoa, and small to average sized countries such as Gambia, Lesotho and Mauritania -- "some of which have achieved teledensities of up to 44 lines per 100 inhabitants surpassing many developing countries."

In a report released Monday, ITU said considerable progress has been made to bridge the digital divide and that teledensity targets set by the Brussels Programme of Action have been met by 25 of the 50 LDCs.

"The mobile sector in LDCs has grown considerably against fixed lines over the last few years, and the number of mobile subscribers almost doubled in 2005," said Cosmas Zavazava, head of ITUs Unit for LDCs, Small Island Developing States and Emergency Telecommunications.

In a statement released Monday, he also said: "It recorded a significant annual growth of 82 percent from 2000 to 2005, compared with 12 percent in the fixed-line sector".

According to ITU statistics, least developed countries with the highest annual growth rate in terms of cellular subscribers over the period 2000-2005 were Djibouti (186 percent), Democratic Republic of Congo (184 percent), Niger (171 percent), Liberia (155 percent), Mali (142 percent), Sudan (139 percent), Yemen (129 percent) and Laos (119 percent).

At the same time, pre-paid services, accounting for almost 90 percent of the entire market, "have contributed to the explosive expansion of the mobile sector in LDCs."

In Afghanistan, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Haiti, Somalia and Niger, all mobile subscriptions were prepaid.

ITU also said that overall, access to the internet has increased and there is more interest in deployment of broadband services in rural areas.

By 2005, internet user penetration caught up with fixed line penetration in LDCs, providing access to a host of applications, such as e-education, e-health, e-business, e-agriculture, and e-government.

In terms of internet penetration, ITU said, a number of countries have reached penetration rates of around five percent, including Maldives (5.8 percent), Cape Verde and Togo (both 4.9 percent), and Senegal (4.6 percent).

Although the majority of LDCs have not yet launched high-speed internet services, popular demand is encouraging more countries to upgrade from dial-up internet connections to broadband.

Still ITU warned that despite recent progress, LDCs continue to face major challenges.

"Rapid developments in the LDC telecommunications marketplace require new directions to be taken by policymakers and regulators," it said.

Policy makers and regulators must therefore forge a transition path away from the old regulations that may have served a useful purpose in the past, but are today barriers to progress.

Equally challenging is the task of developing an appropriate policy and regulatory framework that will help realise the full benefits of internet protocol (IP) convergence, the study noted.

In many LDCs, it said, policy changes are required that would provide regulators with flexible tools to implement the transition to new network development opportunities and attract investor financial flows into the sector.

The scarcity of ICT infrastructure, the high cost of international bandwidth, the dearth of relevant local content along with the lack of cooperation among development partners and political instability also remain daunting challenges.

"What is really encouraging is the fact that there is incredible enthusiasm among LDCs to be part of the Information Society. This, coupled with the emergence of new, low cost and affordable technologies, especially wireless, will hasten the pace towards universal access", Zavazava said.

Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency

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