Satellites, balloons and airships can help fill growing ‘digital chasm’, says new report for UN

Satellites, balloons and airships can help fill growing ‘digital chasm’, says new report for UN

The digital divide is in danger of becoming a “digital chasm” as broadband rollout fails to keep up with population growth, according to a pair of reports out today.

There is “growing digital inequality between developed and developing countries, as well as between the rich and the poor within countries”, says the United Nations’ Broadband Commission in its latest report.

But a second report, from a working group set up by the Commission, offers new hope of using high-altitude platforms as well as satellites to extend internet coverage to poorly covered parts of the world.

Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat

“Four billion people are not connected and the rate of penetration of broadband is slowing,” Rupert Pearce, CEO of Inmarsat, told Capacity. Pearce chaired the working group that has produced the report on new platforms.

“We’re in a time of extreme innovation. We are seeing a revolution in capacity in terms of coverage and cost in bringing affordable connectivity,” he said.

The Pearce report, published today along with the Broadband Commission’s gloomy report, says that satellites and high-altitude platforms can extend coverage – but governments and regulators need to take action to ensure spectrum and services are harmonised with existing mobile broadband networks.

“These technologies are affordable at or below the cost of terrestrial mobile,” Pearce told Capacity in an interview just before the report came out.

The Broadband Commission, which was set up in 2010 by two UN agencies, the International Telecommunication Union and Unesco, is due to present its reports to the UN in New York later today. Officially the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, it is chaired by Carlos Slim, head of América Móvil, and Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda.

The Pearce report found that satellite and high altitude systems offer significant advantages for expanding broadband coverage in developing countries.

“In addition to their broad coverage, versatility and reliability, deployment of these systems can be relatively quick, cost-effective and environmentally responsible,” says the report.

More than half the world’s population remain unable to connect regularly to the internet, it adds. The report lists three technologies that can help:

• high throughput satellites – essentially modern versions of the satellites in the geostationary orbit that have been used for 50 years;

• massive constellations of non-geostationary orbit satellites – the services that are being planned or are already in service, operated by companies such as SES's O3b, Iridium and OneWeb; and

• high-altitude platform stations – manned or unmanned aircraft, balloons or airships that are positioned 20-50km above the ground.

“There’s been a clear step-change from where we were five or 10 years ago,” Pearce told Capacity. Many of the new technologies “have been founded in uses in the developed world but create availability and coverage for all”.

The Pearce report makes three key recommendations, he said. “Policymakers must ensure access to spectrum”, which should be harmonised with existing services.

Second, “we need to rethink strategies to foster competition” and foster the new high-altitude technologies as an integrated approach. “It’s no longer enough to use one technology, such as mobile or fibre.” They have key roles “but we need to encourage a technology-neutral approach”.

Third, “stakeholders should support innovative pilot projects”, he added. “We’re pushing for heterogeneous networks rather than seeing them in opposition.”

Meanwhile, the main Broadband Commission report says “that broadband connectivity is getting worse, not better”, said Pearce. “The digital divide is growing.”

The Commission’s target was originally set out in terms of so-called sustainable development goals (SDGs), including targets for broadband roll-out as a way of improving economic development.

“By the end of 2017, some 3.58 billion people are projected to be online, equivalent to some 48.0% of the global population, up from 3.4 billion people or 45.9% of the world’s population who are estimated to have been online at the end of 2016,” says today’s report from the Commission. This is a year-on-year increase of some 180 million people.

“In the developing world, internet penetration is projected to reach 41.3% by end 2017, up from 39.0% by end 2016, making internet user penetration in developing countries unlikely to reach 50% in a similar timeframe.” That 50% target was one of the key SDGs.

Internet user penetration is projected to reach 17.5% in the least developed countries in 2017, up from 15.6% in 2016. “It is highly unlikely” that the SDG of providing “universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020” will be achieved, says the Broadband Commission.

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