Bridging the digital divide

Developed countries roll out broadband telecoms infrastructure at an ever-increasing pace, but developing nations are missing out.

One of the top priorities for the international community today is to bridge the digital divide. The Global Broadband Satellite Infrastructure (GBSI) initiative offers a possible solution to closing this gap.

The purpose of GBSI, which was presented to the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), is to promote the provision of high-speed internet broadband connections to under-served areas by offering satellite technology at affordable prices.

Many governments and regional organisations expressed their support, leading to its recognition in the December 2003 WSIS Action Plan, and to the integration of several of its key elements into the WSIS Declaration.

The forthcoming second phase of WSIS in Tunis in November is being dubbed a ‘summit of solutions’ and an occasion for all sectors to showcase and launch new partnerships aimed at implementing the Action Plan.

We are all part of a larger global effort in which each stakeholder can make a unique contribution based on their own strengths and expertise to meet the important WSIS goal of connecting communities by 2015.

GBSI was motivated by the fact that the digital divide is deepening day-by-day, year-by-year and changing in nature. This is due to the fact that while developing countries are still struggling to provide access to basic telephone services, developed nations are rolling out a broadband telecoms infrastructure at an ever increasing pace that provides these services directly to homes and small businesses. In many developed countries, universal broadband access has become a government priority and an important component of their electoral platforms.

Where does this situation leave developing nations? Their participation in the global knowledge-based economy is at stake. There is an even more serious digital divide looming in the future, with severe consequences for under-served populations.

So developing countries are left with no alternative but to leapfrog to a broadband era. Satellite broadband can enable them to link large elements of their populations to vital and innovative information and communication technology applications in education, healthcare, commerce and online governance.

The GBSI initiative uses satellite technology for many reasons. Satellite networks have grown tremendously in the last five years. There are now more than 260 commercial satellites in orbit which provide redundant coverage of every square metre of the earth’s surface; no other technology has the same global reach or intensity of coverage.

However, the unfortunate reality is that more than 50 per cent of the world’s population has no access to any form of telecoms.

What would be the reaction of these people if they knew that the satellites above their heads cannot help them? Nearly 40 per cent of the in-orbit capacity is unused.

The objective of GBSI is two-fold — to harness existing, abundant global telecoms capacity and to connect the large segments of the world’s population that lacks telecoms facilities. The effort is similar to the one required to divert water from dams to cultivate the land needing the most water.

In essence, GBSI advocates a portion of spectrum to be identified and made available on a worldwide, interference-free basis to provide affordable consumer broadband access.

Indeed, the affordability of terminal equipment may be the missing link for the emergence of global broadband usage.

The proposed portion of the spectrum to be identified should represent approximately five per cent of the more than 5,000MHz spectrum already allocated to satellite services, and is to be taken from these services.

No new spectrum would be needed for a long time, considering the over-capacity that characterises the satellite communications sector today.

Ahmed Toumi is director general and chief executive of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. This is an abridged version of an article for the current issue of ITU News.