Next leap for regional connectivity
Advances in regional connectivity have generated substantial economic and social gains in terms of growth, trade and people-to-people connections. The global explosion of new technologies, especially in information and communication technologies (ICT), points the way to the next big leap for regional connectivity: an Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway.
The countries of Asia and the Pacific are already well recognized for their success in structuring cross-border global value chains, which, backed by infrastructure corridors, have helped boost trade within and beyond the region. There is great potential, however, to further deepen connectivity and maximize socioeconomic gains, by more effectively integrating ICT across all core infrastructure.
The urgency for this in the Asia-Pacific region is apparent from the growing digital divide: in its developing economies, less than 15 percent of people have high-speed Internet access. The situation is worse in many of our least developed, landlocked developing and Pacific island countries, where less than 1 percent of people have broadband connectivity. And for women and girls - regardless of location, level of income or age - access is lower still.
Recognizing the significance of ICT in promoting efficiency, productivity and opportunity, the newly proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals target universal and affordable Internet access for all least developed countries by 2020. By using ICT to augment and enhance connectivity, economies and businesses will be better equipped to access the benefits of global markets, the Internet can be leveraged to broaden access to education and training, and new tools can be harnessed, such as advanced early-warning systems to better prepare for natural disasters whose frequency and impact have eroded many of the region’s development gains.
It is imperative for Asia-Pacific countries to benefit more fully from the opportunities of affordable and accessible broadband connections. The way to generate this leap, being deliberated by the member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap), is the creation of an information superhighway.
Connecting the Internet backbone of each separate country into a cohesive “meshed” regional superhighway will enhance competition in telecommunications markets and open new opportunities for large-scale investment in fiber optic infrastructure. Seamlessly connecting land- and sea-based fiber networks will lead to economies of scale and lower Internet prices, particularly for the countries and communities who have been excluded from the advantages of ICT so far.
The biggest barrier to any new infrastructure is cost. Yet the actual costs of fiber optic materials and conduits are almost negligible. The real challenges are the labor 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. In OECD countries, for example, these costs together represent an average of between 50 to 80 percent of all spending on optical fiber deployment.
Escap believes that our region should take a different tack. We boast the world’s widest system of seamless physical connectivity - 143,000 kilometers (88,856 miles) of the Asian highway and another 117,000 kilometers of Trans-Asian Railway networks. Cemented by intergovernmental treaties and administered by Escap, they offer an unmatched opportunity for “co-habitation” of ICT, transport and other infrastructure networks - synchronizing optical fiber conduit rollout with land transportation construction. Unexpected, yet perfect partners, in building better connectivity.
Apart from cost savings of up to 80 percent, 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.
In partnership with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Escap has recently mapped existing fiber optic infrastructure connectivity in Asia and the Pacific. Our online, interactive map is the first to feature integrated terrestrial and submarine backbone networks, as well as cross-country connections on a single consolidated platform. Our goal is that this will lead to greater coordination between countries, and also between governments and the private sector, in making the information superhighway both a concrete and a virtual reality.
This is also why policymakers from across Asia and the Pacific are convening this week in Bangkok, for the first-ever joint session of Escap’s Committees on Information and Communications Technology and on Transport. They will identify best practices to unlock synergies between ICT and transport sectors. They will also examine the benefits of amending the Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway intergovernmental agreements, building stronger ICT connectivity on the success of existing cross-border transport networks.
One option will be to include, in the agreements, recommendations that encourage the cohabitation of ICT and transport infrastructure. The establishment of a group of experts will also be considered, to pave the way for more affordable Internet in the region, based on common principles for cheaper, more efficient and reliable Internet infrastructure - the foundations of the information superhighway.
The time for policy action is now. 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.
*The author is an under-secretary general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap). Established in 1947 with its headquarters in Bangkok, Escap’s Committees on Information and Communications Technology and on Transport will convene at Escap from Oct. 14 to 17.
by Shamshad Akhtar