During the past decade, information and communication technologies (ICT) have enabled revolutionary social and economic growth around the world. Most recently, mobile broadband telephony has begun to play an especially significant role, a fact that the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently recognized in its newly released annual Global Information Technology Report 2008-2009. The report, which uses information from ITU as well as statistics from other sources, provides the global community with a focused and fact-filled snapshot of the impact mobile telephony is having in reducing poverty, improving health care, and enhancing productivity worldwide. It provides an opportunity to review how far the global community has come with regard to mobile telephony deployment. It also shows how much work remains to be done to encourage ubiquitous mobile broadband connectivity.

The report provides statistical evidence that progress is being made. It notes that "mobile communications penetration has boomed in the developing world". The rapid global deployment of mobile telephony, which WEF Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab states in the report to be "possibly the most revolutionary ICT", is nothing short of astounding. According to the GSM Association, mobile phone companies provide more than 4 billion voice and basic data connections to consumers on networks that cover over 6 billion people. This is a dramatic increase since 2001 when there were approximately 750 million mobile phone subscribers in the world.

A combination of factors during the past decade has contributed to this remarkable phenomenon. Such factors include an infrastructure that is generally easy to deploy (certainly relative to wireline facilities), government policies that have opened up markets to new entrants, and a significant drop in costs for mobile equipment and communications per minute, just to name a few. Developing countries have recognized the power of competition, private-sector leadership, and regulatory reform -- all of which have greatly stimulated the growth of the ICT sector around the world. Importantly, a significant number of countries have shed government ownership of formerly monopolistic telephone companies and embraced competition. This competition has resulted in substantial price cuts, creative new services, and greatly expanded markets and access to those markets, especially to those who had previously been too poor to afford to be connected.

Of course, the mobile telephony success story is only the beginning, as the world is increasingly focusing on how we can build towards mobile broadband ubiquity. According to some independent estimates, the mobile industry is set to invest USD 800 billion during the next five years, USD 550 billion of which is earmarked for mobile broadband. The expectation is that this investment will lead to 2.4 billion people being connected to the Internet. But what results will flow from this grand connectivity? As John Chambers, Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems Inc., states in the forward to the report, "ubiquitous broadband access is a key part" of global economic prosperity and "mobility represents the only way for the world to achieve ubiquitous broadband access". Suffice it to say, the social and economic changes stemming from the expanded deployment of mobile telephony will likely be greatly exceeded by those resulting from mobile broadband deployment.

The United States Perspective

During this recent period of expansion in mobile telephony, the United States -- both its industry and its government -- has sought to help in a wide variety of ways. For example, various US agencies have played a vital role in mobile telephony and, by extension, mobile broadband deployment, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); the US Agency for International Development (USAID) via its Rural Technology Initiatives and its participation in the public-private Digital Freedom Initiative, led by the Department of State; the US Telecommunications Training Institute, by way of its educational courses; and the US Trade and Development Agency, through grants and workshops that have for years promoted expanded Internet access and the availability of ICT in developing countries. And, as many readers of this article know, the United States has sought to support the important technological and educational work being done at ITU that has helped millions of people throughout the world.

Mobile broadband ubiquity requires collaborative partnerships involving business, government, non-governmental organizations, educators, and others. Such partnerships have already been brokered and, thanks in large part to ITU and the leadership of Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré and the other elected officials, the fruits of this labour are evident. For example, ITU's Connect Africa Summit brought together over one thousand participants and six Heads of State and garnered commitments to interconnect all African capitals and major cities with ICT broadband infrastructure, as well as to strengthen connectivity to the rest of the world by 2012. ITU continues to spearhead gatherings of world leaders and industry titans to address ICT and its dynamic role in global prosperity, as evidenced by the ITU Telecom World event to be held in Geneva from 5 to 9 October 2009. These forums are invaluable ways to facilitate common understanding and worldwide recognition of the vital importance of broadband and to ensure that the dialogue continues.

However, truly ubiquitous mobile broadband deployment requires more than verbal or written commitments -- it requires significant capital investment. In that vein, the United States Congress recently committed USD 7.2 billion towards the deployment of broadband throughout the United States, with particular focus on rural areas of the country. This substantial capital commitment, together with the much larger amounts of private investment in broadband, is expected to spur further innovation and deployment. Coupled with this infusion of money is a mandate that the FCC develop a national broadband plan. The FCC recently issued a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) and is seeking input from all interested parties as to what constitutes broadband access, what constitutes "unserved" and "underserved" areas, which technologies are the most advantageous, and whether current US spectrum management policies need to be reformed in order to facilitate further broadband deployment, among many other lines of investigation.

Contemporaneous with the issuance of the NOI was an acknowledgment by FCC Commissioners that wireless technologies will play a vital role in broadband deployment in the United States. As Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein stated at the time of the release of the NOI, "we recognize that any effective effort will rely heavily on wireless broadband as the wave of the future, and a key element to reach hard-to-serve areas. Considering America's ever-increasing appetite for reliable broadband services and applications from mobile devices, the role that wireless will play is huge and undeniable."

Fellow FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, in a speech delivered in 2008, similarly recognized this by stating that "yesterday's cell phone is today's and tomorrow's personal portable broadband device" and that "wireless broadband penetration increased at a staggering rate of 730 per cent per year through the end of 2006." In mandating the FCC to act, the US Congress clearly stated how important ubiquitous broadband deployment is to the future of the country. The FCC, too, acknowledges that broadband connectivity will revolutionize health care, energy policy, consumer welfare, and economic productivity, among just a few areas of interest.

Worldwide Developments

The United States is not alone in committing money and human resources to creating a national broadband plan. At the beginning of April 2009, Australia announced its National Broadband Network, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd believes to be the biggest infrastructure project in the country's history. Australia's National Broadband Network will involve an investment of AUD 43 billion over the next eight years. The goal is to connect 90 per cent of homes, schools and workplaces at speeds of 100 Mbit/s. It will use next-generation technologies such as optical fibre, but also rely on advanced wireless and satellite technologies for remote parts of rural Australia. The entity building the network will consist of a public-private partnership. It is expected that the network will support 25 000 jobs every year, on average, over the life of the project.

Of course, ubiquitous mobile broadband deployment requires immense private investment too, as private investment is the linchpin to ensuring global mobile broadband availability. According to one report, worldwide capital expenditure by telecommunication service providers totalled nearly USD 250 billion in 2007. This was a 7-per-cent increase from 2006. Mobile infrastructure made up the bulk of expenditure on equipment in 2007, accounting for 20 per cent of the total. Carriers in China and India, especially, have driven the growth in capital expenditure worldwide. In the United States, mobile telephony providers spent approximately USD 20 billion on capital expenditure in 2007. According to the FCC, such capital expenditure consists primarily of spending to expand and improve the geographic coverage of networks, and to increase the capacity of existing networks and improve their capabilities, by allowing higher data transmission speeds, for example. No doubt, as mobile technology evolves and continues to revolutionize the lives of people worldwide, carriers will continue to invest heavily in their networks and equipment, notwithstanding current global economic problems.

Similar efforts to increase broadband availability, including mobile broadband, are happening in virtually all parts of the world. Indeed, it is widely recognized that it will take both public and private-sector involvement in all countries to ensure ubiquitous mobile broadband deployment. Certainly, great progress has been made so far. The private sector, the public sector, intergovernmental organizations such as ITU, non-governmental organizations, as well as other interested parties, must work better and more cooperatively than ever before. Despite the global economic downturn, the time for renewed effort and focus is now. The collective work that has been done has been remarkably successful and the future of the world is bright indeed.

This article originally appeared in ITU News, the official magazine of the International Telecommunication Union.