Executive Summary

Since its inception in 2010, the UN Broadband Commission has united global leaders from industry, policy circles and academia in a mission to connect the world. Today, almost half of the world’s population uses the Internet for many purposes, including education, entertainment, civic engagement and e-commerce, while nearly a third use social media. According to new ITU estimates, the milestone of half the world’s population online will be surpassed by the end of 2018, representing a momentous achievement.*

The importance of broadband Internet for sustainable development is clear, as our societies continue to grow and develop. Broadband infrastructure is now vital infrastructure, as essential as water and electricity networks, but it is also becoming more invisible and integrated in utility networks in ‘smart’ infrastructure. According to ITU, nearly 4.4 billion active mobile broadband subscriptions are expected by end 2018, strengthening the power of the mobile digital economy.

Advances in mobile broadband (such as 4G and 5G) and next-generation satellite technologies will mean the delivery of digital services more quickly and reliably, with implications for the future of e-health, transportation, education, and disaster relief. Fixed broadband still remains important, with falling costs of installation and use. The growing Internet of Things (IoT) presents opportunities for digitization and driving change in businesses and sector-specific manufacturing. The transformative potential of technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (illustrated in the rise of diverse digital players) are shifting the focus of our modern economy from physical assets to the ability to harvest and utilize information and insight. The global digital market and global data assets are growing rapidly.

However, there are indications of growing inequality in access to ICTs, both within and between countries, while there are growing concentrations of data and value in huge, global online platforms. Discussions of ‘first-mover advantage’ need to include discussions of ‘last-mover disadvantage’ and the need to invest in digital infrastructure, in case certain developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) find themselves left behind in the race to digitalize. This report emphasizes the importance of investing in broadband to ensure the digital divide does not widen further.

The report finds steady progress towards the Broadband Commission’s targets. Targets can play a significant role in informing, shaping and influencing policy priorities at the national and regional levels, and a growing number of governments now benchmark the status of broadband in their national broadband plans. The number of national broadband plans around the world has stabilized, while broadband is becoming less expensive, although achieving 2% of GNI per capita may prove challenging in many LDCs. Hitherto strong Internet growth rates have begun to level out, as networks reach near-ubiquity in densely populated areas.

Other questions arise with regards to the online services popular among Internet users. Are Internet users really acquiring useful information and gaining digital literacy, or does web surfing for entertainment count as a socially useful activity? What do digital skills look like for the new online economy? Are legacy education systems able to adapt to generate the digital skills needed in the digital economy? The report reviews the implications of big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for development in education, health and our natural environment. Big data promises to improve our understanding of which policies work, and which don’t, and their impact for different stakeholders. Finally, the report concludes with a number of recommendations in different areas designed to advanceprogress in broadband at the national and international level in a coherent approach:

  • 5.1 Build National Leadership for broadband

  • 5.2 Promote training and measures to stimulate demand

  • 5.3 Benchmark and monitor ICT developments

  • 5.4 Review universal service measures, including Rights of Way (RoW) regulations

  • 5.5 Strengthen digital skills and digital literacy

  • 5.6 Support Local e-Businesses and Local Entrepreneurship

  • 5.7 Review and adapt legal frameworks to take into account digitalization

  • 5.8 Reduce taxes and import duties on telecom/ICT equipment & services

* Text updated according to the ITU 2018 Global and Regional ICT estimates and the ITU’s “Measuring the Information Society Report 2018”.