Reducing Digital Divide: Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway

Executive Secretary Shamshad Akhtar opens the fourth session of the Committee on Information and Communications Technology in Bangkok, Thailand. 14 October 2014.
Photo Credit: UN ESCAP
Executive Secretary Shamshad Akhtar opens the fourth session of the Committee on Information and Communications Technology in Bangkok, Thailand. 14 October 2014. Photo Credit: UN ESCAP

Asia-Pacific countries pledge to lower costs for Internet infrastructure across region

Affordable and reliable Internet for all people in Asia and the Pacific is one step closer to becoming a reality today, as policymakers agreed to work towards amending the Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway intergovernmental agreements, which will encourage co-deployment of ICT and transport infrastructure and significantly lower the cost of high-speed Internet across the region.

Currently, less than 15 per cent of the population in developing Asia and the Pacific has access to high-speed Internet and the situation is even worse in least developed and landlocked countries, where inexpensive and reliable Internet is almost non-existent.

To address this issue, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is leading the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) initiative, aimed at connecting each country’s backbone networks and integrating them into a cohesive land- and sea-based fibre infrastructure. This would increase international bandwidth for developing countries in the region and lower Internet prices. The foundations for the AP-IS were firmly set today as Asia-Pacific countries agreed to set up a working group to develop principles and norms for the regional ICT network at the Fourth Session of ESCAP’s ICT Committee, which closed in Bangkok this week. The countries also agreed to develop a Master Plan covering both policy and technical aspects of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway.

Asia boasts the world’s widest system of seamless physical connectivity – 143 000 km of the Asian Highway and another 117 000 km of Trans-Asian Railway networks. Cemented by intergovernmental treaties and administered by ESCAP, they offer an unmatched opportunity for co-habitation of ICT and transport networks – synchronizing optical fibre conduit rollout with land transportation construction. Aside from cost savings of up to 80 per cent, this ‘dig once – use many times’ approach expands and diversifies the revenues generated by infrastructure construction: a win-win for governments, private sector investors and newly-connected communities.

Speaking at the opening of the ICT Committee, Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary said the biggest barrier to any new infrastructure is cost, yet the actual expense of fibre optic materials and conduits are almost negligible. The real challenges are the labour costs of excavation, the costs of securing rights of way, especially across borders, as well as the implicit costs of disruptions and delays in the areas under construction. By encouraging the building of ICT infrastructure along transport networks, countries that need it most can significantly reduce these construction charges.

“Amending the intergovernmental transport agreements will set us on a path towards a fully inclusive information society,” said Dr. Akhtar. “Targeted investments and policy reforms that enhance the seamlessness of current configurations of Internet infrastructure, as well as competitive markets that allow for the efficient use of this infrastructure will help reduce regional inequities and increase the overall development impact of the ICT.

“We must put forth all our efforts to close the digital divide and ensure that all people are able to thrive in today’s information economy,” Dr. Akhtar added. “Our region must capitalize on this opportunity to build the inclusive and sustainable Asia-Pacific we need, taking the next big leap in regional connectivity to ensure future prosperity for all our people.”

Background

The Fourth Session of the ICT Committee was held from 14 to 16 October, at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok. This was the first time the Committee on ICT and Committee on Transport were held back-to-back, with a joint plenary session highlighting the synergies between the ICT and transport sectors. The ICT Committee is an opportunity for policymakers to agree on a regional framework for action for addressing the digital divide, including the development of stronger Internet infrastructure in Asia-Pacific. The meeting is held every two years as part of the ESCAP Commission structure.