Our Urbanizing World Needs a New Broadband Agenda

A man uses the internet via public Wi-Fi in Havana, Cuba, September 5, 2016. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We must build communication networks that ensure no one is left behind as the world's cities grow

The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III, is currently underway in Quito, Ecuador, an infrequent conference that convenes every 20 years. This timescale may be remarkable in its own right but it means that it is all the more vital that our international institutions and national governments seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to set the right priorities.

We need to work together to support the growing population of our planet. A world which is urbanizing at a rapid rate and where suitable infrastructure and adequate policies are in place to sustain our future.

I believe that broadband can play a central role in building and transforming cities and human settlements, and for achieving the goals of the New Urban Agenda and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Attendees to the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) must not miss the opportunity to prioritize the global roll-out of broadband infrastructure, applications and services which can lead to inclusive economic growth and lift people out of poverty around the world.

Broadband and information and communication technologies (ICTs) are vital enablers of the three pillars of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection. ICTs can significantly contribute to the New Urban Agenda’s goals of helping to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions, reduce inequalities, promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, improve human health and well-being, as well as foster resilience and protect the environment.

Connecting the world’s people, no matter where they reside or how much they earn, can be a major force to drive sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth. A growing body of research and evidence suggests that broadband can boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP); drive innovation and add jobs in new sectors, as well as increase labour productivity and energy efficiency. These life-changing broadband technologies can spur digital transformation, diversify national economies and spark new knowledge-intensive, high-growth products and services.

Gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is a pressing concern that can be mitigated and even resolved by ensuring greater connectivity. Broadband infrastructure can be used to improve education, literacy and awareness of people’s basic rights, including women’s and girls’. Women and girls can be empowered by lifelong learning and basic competencies in digital skills, enhancing their access to resources, markets, institutional rights, improved livelihoods and new and better-paid job opportunities. Integrating ICTs into education and learning processes can help ensure that online learning is available, accessible and inclusive, and work to achieve Education for All.

The successful global roll-out of broadband can improve human health and well-being. For patients, access to broadband and health information can improve awareness of basic hygiene and prevention practices. For clinicians and health practitioners, broadband can advance access to improved information, expertise, imagery and remote diagnosis, advancing early diagnosis and treatment. For health providers and health systems, digital health information systems can magnify health systems, monitoring and feedback, and help increase overall health outcomes. Improved ICT infrastructure, including mobile phones, can be used to link rural clinics, midwives and community health workers, to provide connectivity in times of emergency, to access and organize support services, and to expand the treatment options available, at both the individual patient level as well as for overall public services.

Delegates at Habitat III must also recognize the pivotal role that broadband connectivity can foster to build resilience and help protect the environment. Smart grids can help develop energy supply and usage and reduce carbon footprints. Broadband can increase the efficiency of the supply and management of the world’s dwindling fresh water sources. Broadband and ICTs can be used to diagnose the health of our planet such as monitoring climate change, changes in ocean temperature, deforestation, thinning of the polar ice caps, animal migration, and land use. Accumulating analysis and improving data can complement scientific research and track developments in all these processes, including the impact of changes in policy.

Let us not miss this precious opportunity to recognize that broadband networks are vital for achieving sustainable urban development and for ensuring that no one is left behind in any of our cities or communities. I urge those gathered in Quito to capitalize on the benefits of broadband for achieving the goals of the New Urban Agenda. Let us grasp this vital opportunity to carve this into policy and strive for a world where every citizen can potentially experience the opportunities and benefits of universal, affordable and inclusive access and connectivity to ICTs. Habitat IV comes around in 2036 – let’s not leave it until then.

Houlin Zhao is secretary general of International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.

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