The ITU report was unveiled during a special session on “Integrating Least Developed Countries (LDCs) into the world economy through telecommunications/ICT” held during the Mid-Term Review on implementation of the Brussels Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries for the decade 2001-2010.
According to ITU, teledensity has more than doubled in the majority of least developed countries since 2000 with some of them boosting connectivity by as much as 20 times, thanks to rapid growth in the deployment of mobile technologies. The race towards universal access in LDCs has been mainly led by Small Island Developing States such as Cape Verde, Maldives and Samoa and small to average sized countries such as Gambia, Lesotho, and Mauritania, some of which have achieved teledensities of up to 44 lines per 100 inhabitants surpassing many developing countries.
Growth driven by ICT: mobile and internet
“The mobile sector in LDCs has grown considerably against fixed lines over the last few years, and the number of mobile subscribers almost doubled in 2005”, explained Cosmas Zavazava, Head of ITUs Unit for Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and Emergency Telecommunications. “It recorded a significant annual growth of 82 per cent from 2000 to 2005, compared with 12 per cent in the fixed-line sector”. According to ITU statistics, least developed countries with the highest annual growth rate in terms of cellular subscribers over the period 2000-2005 were Djibouti (186%), Democratic Republic of Congo (184%), Niger (171%), Liberia (155%), Mali (142%), Sudan (139%), Yemen (129%) and Lao P.D.R. (119%). Prepaid services, accounting for almost 90 per cent of the entire market, have contributed to the explosive expansion of the mobile sector in LDCs. In Afghanistan, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Haiti, Somalia and Niger all mobile subscriptions were prepaid.
Overall, access to the internet has increased and more interest is on deployment of broadband services in rural areas. By 2005, internet user penetration caught up with fixed line penetration in LDCs, providing access to a host of applications, such as e-education, e-health, e-business, e-agriculture, and e-government. In terms of internet penetration, a number of countries have reached penetration rates of around five percent, including Maldives (5.8%), Cape Verde and Togo (both 4.9%), and Senegal (4.6%). Although the majority of LDCs have not yet launched high-speed internet services, popular demand is encouraging more countries to upgrade from dial-up internet connections to broadband. For instance, by 2005, over 89 per cent of all internet subscribers in Senegal were DSL subscribers, compared with 70 per cent in the Maldives, 17 per cent in Cape Verde and 2 per cent in Lao P.D.R.
Despite recent progress, LDCs continue to face major challenges. Rapid developments in the LDC telecommunications marketplace require new directions to be taken by policymakers and regulators. Many established policies and regulations have become obsolete, leading to inefficient and increasingly untenable restrictions and barriers to the development and dissemination of the benefits of IP convergence. Policy makers and regulators must therefore forge a transition path away from the old regulations that may have served a useful purpose in the past, but are today barriers to progress.
Equally challenging is the task of developing an appropriate policy and regulatory framework that will help realize the full benefits of internet protocol (IP) convergence. In many LDCs policy changes are required that would provide regulators with flexible tools to implement the transition to new network development opportunities and attract investor financial flows into the sector.
The scarcity of ICT infrastructure, the high cost of international bandwidth, the dearth of relevant local content along with the lack of cooperation among development partners and political instability also remain daunting challenges.
“What is really encouraging is the fact that there is incredible enthusiasm among LDCs to be part of the Information Society. This, coupled with the emergence of new, low cost and affordable technologies, especially wireless, will hasten the pace towards universal access”, affirmed Zavazava.
At the special session ITU outlined activities during the next five years that would include assistance to at least twenty more LDCs in the following priority areas:
- Development of ICT infrastructure and introduction of new technologies
- Rural telecommunication development to promote universal access
- Implementation of projects in e-services and applications
- Development of appropriate legal, regulatory and policy regimes
- Integration of ICT in emergency communications for enhanced disaster preparedness