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Martin Creaner, director general of the World Broadband Association, says the digital divide discussion needs to move towards a more involved, longer-term connectivity plan.

Although complex to truly quantify, the importance of broadband connectivity to socioeconomic development is undeniable. The global broadband subscription market alone was worth over $356bn by the end of 2021 and supports a wider ICT industry that typically accounts for between two per cent and seven per cent of a country’s overall GDP. The benefits of broadband, however, spread far beyond those that can be directly monetised.

Fixed broadband brings maximum economic impact at scale

Broadband technologies help grow national economies through both direct and adjacent monetisation, a benefit which increases in line with broadband penetration. Equally the greater the broadband maturity of a country, the more capable it is of increasing product digitisation and further driving its economic impact.

Broadband networks are now used to support a vast range of industries, from manufacturing to health institutions to educational facilities, as well as supporting more social aspects such as wellbeing and social equality. The benefits that broadband brings in these areas are equally, if not more, important than those that can be directly monetised.

Broadband quality is as important as basic penetration

While a high level of broadband penetration is critical to a country’s socioeconomic development, the quality of that broadband connection is just as important as the connection itself. Unlike other utility services such as gas and electricity, with broadband, the quality of a network is hugely important as higher-speed, lower-latency and higher-reliability networks can support a greater number of more sophisticated cloud-based applications. This wider, more advanced set of internet applications can help further drive a country’s wealth and overall efficiency.

Delving deeper, fibre-based ultra-fast broadband has a positive impact on GDP over and above the effects of basic broadband. However, there is always a balance to be drawn between the increasingly high costs of rolling out fibre to more rural areas, versus the economic benefits advanced fibre-based broadband networks will bring. Understanding this fine balance will help guard against the emergence of multi-tiered digital societies based on segments of the population that have access to fibre-based ultra-high-speed broadband networks, and those that do not.

Maximising socioeconomic benefits

To enable all countries to make the most of the potential of broadband, the digital divide discussion needs to move on from just focusing on basic connectivity penetration, towards a more involved and longer-term connectivity plan that can be split broadly into three phases:

  • Phase 1: Early, fast deployment of broadband services with a focus on mobile and other wireless technology to maximise basic internet coverage as quickly as possible.
  • Phase 2: Increased focus on the rollout of fixed broadband access with a plan to get fixed broadband to 100 per cent of all premises. This will ensure further socioeconomic development.
  • Phase 3: A shift from driving broadband coverage to a continued long-term investment in advanced broadband technologies to move toward gigabit societies and beyond. It should be noted that phase three should overlap with phase two so that the latest broadband technologies are being deployed from day one, but it should also be recognised that the investment in broadband technologies will need to continue long after 100 per cent coverage has been achieved.

But to achieve the above three phases will involve the close collaboration of service providers, stakeholders and government.

Where service providers need most help

Cost of deployment is an obvious barrier to greater fibre rollout and this is often compounded by a lack of reliable databases surrounding the location and availability of key infrastructure.

When it comes to where operators need most government/regulatory support, therefore, it is less about financial assistance and more about providing greater flexibility. Legislation to make it easier to locate and gain access to key infrastructure such as ducts, poles, and other infrastructure will certainly help. Although more complex, legislation will also be beneficial regarding access to non-telecom infrastructure, as well as broader legislation around topics such as copper switch-off to create efficiencies.

Best practices for government support

The need for fast, reliable, and low-latency connectivity is greater than ever, and policymakers must now recognise the need to evolve toward becoming gigabit societies. All the benefits of advanced broadband networks, both economic and social, direct and indirect, must be fully recognised so that its investment receives the required priority in policy planning.

In addition, strategies regarding the digital divide must shift from focusing only on getting the unconnected connected, and onto longer-term plans that evolve from basic connectivity to advanced broadband networks, and on toward gigabit societies.

The public no longer needs to merely access basic internet browsing; instead, their broadband services must be capable of supporting a range of applications such as media streaming and video calling. Full-fibre (FTTH/B/R) networks are becoming the preferred solution for these purposes.

Governments can help operators deploy fibre by:

  • Removing outdated or non-essential regulation
  • Introducing flexibility in partnership arrangements, such as allowing agreements between players, co-financing, collaborative models, and public-private partnerships
  • Facilitating deployment through municipality approvals, using existing resources (government buildings, streetlights, ducts), and sharing infrastructure/facilities
  • Providing financial assistance through investment support, incentives, and subsidies, for example, universal service funds
  • Improving access to telecom facilities and physical infrastructure; improving procedures for rights of way and accessing public infrastructure, as well as broadband mapping.

The aim of the World Broadband Association (WBBA is to help to bridge the digital divide, bringing together broadband industry stakeholders to maximise the social and economic benefits of equality from broadband. The WBBA aims to bring influence through discussion, education, and promotion.

The WBBA will look to specifically support service providers and the wider broadband industry by:

  • Setting out the rationale around the importance of greater worldwide broadband investment, not just for the business benefits for the industry players, but also the economic benefits for countries as a whole
  • Promoting regulatory, legislative, public relations agendas that help advance the interests of members, highlighting best-practice business models from around the world
  • Continue to make the case for what governments in both developed and developing economies need to recognise and do to close the industry innovation, socioeconomic, and environmental benefits gaps through infrastructure investment
  • Work with stakeholder partners to understand and promote the potential of future demand-side applications that will bring new benefits to broadband consumers, industries and the wider society
  • Develop and highlight best-practice investment models that show the true return on investment of a full-fiber rollout to both private companies and government organisations
  • Champion the needs of its members to highlight barriers to future investment, creating a platform to enable open discussion between different types of stakeholders to encourage greater cooperation and new partnerships.

Overall, the WBBA will bring together service providers, suppliers, users, investors and and governments to help realise the socioeconomic benefits of broadband, uniting the global industry chain and enhancing technological cooperation.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Martin Creane

Quelle/Source: Smart Cities World, 13.04.2023

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