Statement at Asia-Pacific ICT Ministerial Meeting 2019

Excellency S. Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, Singapore
Mr. Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union
Ms. Areewan Haorangsi, Secretary General of Asia-Pacific Telecommunity
Mr. Tan Kiat How, Chief Executive of IMDA, Singapore
Honourable Ministers,
Excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to participate in the Asia-Pacific ICT Ministerial Meeting 2019 here in Singapore, as this meeting signifies the remarkable progress of our vibrant region. Today, I am delighted to join Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT) in celebrating its 40-year journey which has brought significant contribution to the development of telecommunication services and ICT infrastructure in the region. APT grew out of a joint initiative of UNESCAP and ITU when an international treaty was concluded in Bangkok on 27 March 1976 and came into force on 25 February 1979. I join hands with Mr. Zhao, Secretary General of ITU, in congratulating Ms. Areewan and her APT team on this landmark occasion.

Distinguished Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

The Asia-Pacific region in the upcoming decades will be a vastly different place to what it is now. Advanced digital technology is rapidly transforming all facets of our lives and the way societies operate. Every day we witness increased digitization as the development of frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of things, fintech, big data, and the blockchain leave virtually no sector untouched.

Yet millions of people in the region are at risk of being left behind. Asia and the Pacific is the most digitally divided region in the world. While more than 77.4 per cent of the fixed broadband subscribers are concentrated in East and North-East Asia, only 5.7 per cent are to be found in Southeast Asia. While countries like the Republic of Korea and Japan have over 30 percent fixed broadband penetration rates, 14 ESCAP member States countries have less than 2 percent of their population connected, and this situation has not improved for well over a decade. In addition, the digital divide persists across gender, age and other social groups within countries.

With this context, middle-income countries have made accelerating ‘catch-up’ process in recent decades. In particular, economic growth has been accompanied by rapid increase of fixed-broadband subscriptions in these countries. However, the low-income countries are facing challenges that reflect stagnating and/or basic level of digital connectivity. Despite policy changes, evidence of digital divide in low income countries has been persistent. This has further constrained an upward movement of these countries gains in productivity and skill enhancement.

Today, the large portion of the low-income population remains digitally dis-connected due to high prices of fixed broadband and its availability, especially for the vulnerable populations in disadvantageous locations. The price of broadband in low-income countries, particularly least developed countries, has witnessed extremely higher costs of fixed broadband. In the case of the high-income and middle-income countries, fixed broadband is more affordable.

Similarly, we also find differences across broadband quality among different groups of countries in Asia and the Pacific region.

We must find ways to make emerging digital technologies and their vast applications inclusive, or we may soon experience a runaway widening of the digital divide that inevitably would cascade into many forms of social, economic and political inequalities, given the pervasiveness of digital connectivity in our lives.

Distinguished Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

In this respect, I wish to highlight three points:

First, broadband infrastructure: As frontier technologies are bandwidth-intensive, we need a concerted effort in expanding broadband infrastructure not only to keep pace with evolving technological requirements but also to extend the reach to the underserved and unserved areas. Without affordable and resilient broadband networks, for example, the benefits of smart cities and smart nations, intelligent transport systems, cross-border paperless trade and e-commerce will not lead to inclusive sustainable development.

As a United Nations’ regional commission, UN ESCAP has proactively been working to support countries to enhance regional broadband connectivity through the development and implementation of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) initiative. During the 75th session of the Commission held last month in Bangkok, our member States adopted a resolution that underlines the need to accelerate implementation of the initiative’s Master Plan through subregional actions, such as ASEAN, that will improve the availability, affordability and resilience of broadband networks and services for all peoples.

Second, partnerships among stakeholders: As broadband infrastructure expansion for all is too costly if undertaken by a single entity, partnerships between government, the private sector and a wide range of other stakeholders is essential. In May 2019, at our 75th Commission session we co-organised an event with Google and the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society of Thailand. The event clearly demonstrated that innovative approaches such as the Google Station which taps into the co-deployment of fibre optic cables along railway lines to bring free WIFI to the masses and Net Pra-cha-rat, which aims to connect every single Thai village to the Internet by the end of 2019, can have truly transformative development impacts.

Third, regional cooperation: The digital divide is of particular importance for countries with special needs—Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and in this regard UNESCAP’s intergovernmental platforms supported by specialized agencies such as the ITU as well as APT can help forge the cross-border connectivity that is essential for collectively building the region’s digital future in an inclusive and sustainable way.

Distinguished Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

The future of digital technology is anything but certain. Only by working together will we ensure that these technological breakthroughs work for the economy, society and environment. Through our collective efforts, the Asia-Pacific region has potential to serve as a global champion on the expansion of ICT infrastructure and the use of state-of-the-art technologies for inclusive and sustainable development.

Let me also thank the Government of Singapore for hosting the Asia-Pacific ICT Ministerial Meeting, and all member States for their longstanding support to the APT. I am looking forward to joining forces with all of you to accelerate progress towards sustainable digital transformation, digital innovation and creativity by deepening meaningful engagement with all our partners in Asia and the Pacific.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you a very productive meeting.