Asia-Pacific countries review widening gaps in the knowledge society and regional connectivity

Senior government representatives from over 25 Asia-Pacific countries began a three-day meeting today to discuss cooperative strategies to better connect economies of the region.

Convened by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the 20-22 November meeting of policymakers and experts is part of a series of events on digital connectivity launched this week at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok.

Despite the transformative impact of information and communications technology (ICT), there are a number of barriers that have resulted in a digital divide that is widening in the very technologies that are at the cutting edge of the region’s transformation to a knowledge-based society, fixed and mobile broadband Internet. Consequently, there is much scope for government cooperation in developing regionally connected infrastructure for a seamless regional information space, turning sea- and land-locked countries into linking countries.

“Asia-Pacific is the most technologically divided region in the world and the divide is, in effect, several divides in one. Inequalities in geography, income, education and age are all important aspects – holding us back as a region, and slowing development,” United Nations Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary Dr. Noeleen Heyzer told the Third Session of the ESCAP Committee on Information and Communications Technologies (ICT).

According to ESCAP, only 24.9 per cent of residents in the Asian and Pacific region had access to the Internet in 2011, the latest year for which information is available. This is much lower than in North America (78.4 per cent), Europe (68 per cent) and even Latin America and the Caribbean (32.7 per cent). Of even more concern is that only 6 per cent of the region’s population in developing countries has access to high-speed broadband Internet, without which applications at the cutting edge of the region’s emergent knowledge society are not possible.

Highlighting the potential for enhancing ICT connectivity, Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Thailand, H.E. Group Captain Anudith Nakornthap said: “Developing robust land- and sea-based fibre-optic networks will increase the affordability of international bandwidth, and doing so will require a regional effort to develop a seamless regional information space commensurate with the region’s rising global influence.”

With regards to emerging challenges linked to the new ICTs, the Chairman of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission of Thailand, Air Chief Marshall Thares Punsri defined the objective of regulators as “finding the correct regulatory balance that protects consumers, encourages technological innovations and balances digital progress with our cultural traditions. Our regulatory reforms have sought to build on the principles of accountability, transparency, stability and predictability.”

Delivering his opening address, Undersecretary Louis Casambre of the ICT Office of the Philippines highlighted the need to bridge the digital divide with a focus on those who currently have no access, especially in rural and remote areas.

The Asian and Pacific region is home to some of the most digitally advanced countries of the world, notably the Republic of Korea and Japan, however many of the developing countries in the region lag far behind. In Lao PDR, for example, it would take 111% of monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita to purchase a monthly subscription for an entry-level broadband Internet plan. A similar broadband Internet plan would cost just 1.56% of GNI per capita in the Republic of Korea.

“Rising inequality – both income and non-income – over the past two decades poses one of the greatest challenges to the policy-makers of our region. In this regard, technological progress has often widened these gaps – disproportionately increasing the premium on knowledge intensive skills, at the expense of labour-intensive processes,” said Dr. Heyzer.

Given these challenges, government representatives at this week’s meeting are exploring ways to strengthen regional cooperation in infrastructure development to make broadband Internet affordable to all, anytime and anywhere. They will also consider how cutting edge technological innovations can be used for reducing poverty and inequality in the region.