Broadband is rapidly covering the globe but it's becoming a two-speed planet

Countries invest in high-speed web access for economic growth. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online

Broadband has been a legal right for citizens of Finland since 2010. But while in most of the developed world access to fast internet is rapidly becoming a fact of life like piped water and electricity, many developing countries struggle to attain the vital connective technologies which will make the difference between their people joining the rest of the world or lagging even further behind.

In its new report, "The State of Broadband 2012", the Broadband Commission, established by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and UNESCO, spells out the momentous nature of the revolution we are living through.

"As the price of handsets fall and their functionality increases," the authors write, "soon the vast majority of people on the planet will hold in their hands a device with higher processing power than the most powerful computers from the 1980s."

The world's richest and smallest countries have acted fast to anchor what the report calls "the circulation system of the knowledge society" in their infrastructure, with Switzerland boasting nearly 40 broadband subscriptions per 100 people and Singapore and South Korea having more active mobile broadband subscriptions than people. Meanwhile, in large areas of Africa, South Asia and Latin America, signals are still spotty and devices like gold dust.

In Mali, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh and 21 other countries, fewer than one per cent have broadband subscriptions or mobile broadband. At a time when access to broadband has become an ever more critical means to increasing economic growth and employment – India, despite having a very patchy network, has created 10 million jobs thanks to the internet – failure by governments to take measures could be disastrous, the report says.

The report ranks countries based on their rates of internet use. Iceland, at 95 per cent, boasts the world's highest internet usage rate, while Timor Leste has the lowest rate at 0.9 per cent.

Economic liberalisation can hinder poor countries from building a reliable broadband network. "Liberalisation and competition have created a fragmented market lacking economies of scale and the regulatory certainty needed," the report argues, for the necessary "grand scale" investments in bandwidth.

One quick fix for reaching "the third billion" is satellite, which avoids problems caused by inadequate infrastructure on the ground. In such countries, cheap pre-paid broadband access vouchers help spread the internet habit fast.

The report also noted a strong shift in the dominant language of the web. It said that if current rates of growth continue, the number of non-English language users (mostly Chinese) accessing the internet will outstrip English-language users by 2015.