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Asia's information society
Sunday, 22 July 2012 18:19

Korea is the world’s most advanced ICT economy, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), surpassing many other economies with higher levels of overall economic development. 

Information and communication technologies (ICT) can be a powerful motor for development.  ICTs can expand economic opportunities in a multitude of ways as seen in mobile banking, the offshoring of electronically deliverable services, call centres, e-learning and e-health to name just a few.  ICTs also enhance social and political freedoms by providing access to information and the ability to communicate.  Political movements like the Arab Spring and the second People Power Movement in the Philippines have been facilitated by ICT. 

Advanced countries tend to have the most developed ICT sectors.  But governments like Korea's can help fast-track development by investing in the ICT sectors.  Korea's ICT sector is more developed than many countries like the US, Japan or Germany which have much higher GDPs per capita than Korea.

In its "Measuring the Information Society" report, the ITU releases the latest global ICT pricing and penetration data including an ICT Development Index (IDI).  The IDI measures ICT access, use and skills, and includes such indicators as mobile cellular subscriptions, households with a computer, fixed and mobile broadband Internet subscriptions, and basic literacy rates. 

ICT uptake continues to accelerate worldwide, spurred by a steady fall in the price of telephone and broadband Internet services.  Broadband prices dropped 50% between 2008 and 2010.  But there are huge differences in broadband speed and quality between countries.

All countries made substantial improvements in their IDI ranks between 2008 and 2010.  The IDI top ten countries are Korea, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Netherlands and the UK.  Germany comes in 15th and the US only 17th.

Korea has been a leader in terms of ICT diffusion and uptake for many years.  The country has made ICTs an engine for economic growth and implemented policies allowing it to become an "IT powerhouse".  By creating a competitive and dynamic environment, Korea has become an inclusive information society, and a number of government-driven initiatives -- including the Giga internet pilot project, which includes the construction of 11Mbit/s broadband networks in rural areas -- are helping meet its future demands. 

Korea has the highest mobile-broadband penetration worldwide (91 per cent) and very high fixed broadband penetration (36.6 per cent).  It also excels when it comes to households with Internet connections (almost 97 per cent of all households).  In addition, its high level of education facilitates high usage.   

The scores of other leading Asian countries were: Japan 13th, Australia 14th, Singapore 19th, and Macao.  Other Asian countries stretch way back in the overall list of 152 countries --   Malaysia 58th, China 80th, Vietnam 81st, Mongolia 86th, Thailand 89th, Philippines 92nd, Indonesia 101st, Sri Lanka 105th, India 116th, Cambodia 117th, Laos 121st, Pakistan 123rd, Nepal 134th, and Bangladesh 137th. 

Vietnam was one of the most dynamic countries between 2008 and 2010, rising ten places on the IDI.  Its already relatively high mobile-phone pentration in 2008 (87 per cent) climbed to 175 per cent by the end of 2010.  This puts the country in eighth place worldwide in terms of mobile-cellular penetration.  Household access to computers and the Internet, on the other hand, is still relatively low.  Mobile broadband was practically non-existent in 2008, and reached 13 per cent in 2010.  This is likely to increase Internet usage in the near future. 

Government support has boosted the country's positive ICT direction and status.  The National Assembly issued a Law on Telecommunications and a Law on Wireless Radio Frequency, which took effect on Julu 2010.  The two laws aim to encourage all economic and private sectors to develop their telecommunication services, investments and infrastructure. 

In Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, mobile-broadband is becoming a substitute for fixed-broadband access, which remains very limited due to the limited fixed-telephone infrastructure.  While the growth in mobile-broadband subscriptions is a positive development that testifies to the demand for high-speed Internet access, mobile-broadband technologies do not have the same capacity as fixed-broadband networks and therefore are not generally able to provide the same type of speed as fixed networks, especially fibre, but also xDSL and cable.  Governments must therefore pay special attention to monitoring and boosting fixed-broadband networks.

Although both India and China launched 3G services in 2009, their mobile-broadband penetration rates remain very low (below one and two per cent, respectively).  In comparison with India, however, China has been able to grow its fixed-broadband network, which reached a penetration rate of 9.4 per cent by end 2010, as against less than one per cent in India. 

China also ranks comparatively high in terms of fibre-to-the-home/business connections, and by February 2011 it had a higher percentage of homes connected to fibre than France or Italy.  This has helped China to make great progress in terms of bringing more people online, and between 2008 and 2010 the country recorded one of the highest growth rates in the region in terms of the number of Internet users.  At end 2010, more than one in three Chinese were online, against one in ten Indians.

Another country that has made great strides in terms of Internet users is the Philippines, where an estimated one-quarter of the population was using the Internet by end 2010.  Both China and the Philippines have made the headlines for their active use of social media, and according to one survey the Philippines had the highest social networking usage in the region in 2010.

More generally, the spread of mobile networks in developing countries remains buoyant, with 20 per cent growth in mobile subscriptions over the past year and no signs of a slowdown.  In developed countries, on the other hand, mobile cellular penetration has reached saturation, with average penetration now over 100% at end 2010, compared with 70% in developing countries. With more than five billion subscriptions and global population coverage of over 90%, mobile cellular is now de facto ubiquitous.

The ‘mobile miracle’ is putting ICT services within reach of even the most disadvantaged people and communities. The challenge now is to replicate that success in broadband. 

Globally, telecommunication and Internet services are becoming more affordable. According to the 2010 ICT Price Basket (IPB), which spans 165 economies and combines the average cost of fixed telephone, mobile cellular and fixed broadband Internet services, the price of ICT services dropped by 18% globally between 2008 and 2010, with the biggest decrease in fixed broadband Internet services, where average prices have come down by 52%. 

In developed countries, average prices for ICT services correspond to no more than 1.5. % of monthly per capita income, compared with 17% in developing countries. But while broadband prices declined sharply worldwide, a high-speed Internet connection remains unaffordable in many low-income countries.

A new digital divide is unfolding between those with high-speed/capacity/quality access – as is the case in many high-income countries – and those with lower speed/capacity/quality access, as is the case in many low-income countries.  While the potential development impact of bringing people from developing countries online via wireless access is enormous, high-end users from the business sector and public and private organizations continue to rely on high-speed fixed-broadband connections.  Policy-makers should act swiftly to facilitate the spread of broadband and ensure that broadband services are faster, more reliable and affordable. 

The Internet is only used by an around 21 per cent of the population in the developing world, compared with almost 70 per cent in developed countries.  The ITU report suggests that the main barriers to Internet use are not always related to infrastructure and price. Usage patterns show major differences related to education, gender, income, age and geographical location of users (urban/rural). For example, there is remarkably little difference in patterns of Internet use among highly educated, high-income individuals across the developing and developed worlds. 

ITU research indicates that targeting students may be the most effective way to increase Internet use in developing countries – for example through connecting schools and other educational institutions, and improving enrolment rates.  Young people are online more than older people, and there is a higher level of Internet use among those currently in school compared with those no longer studying. 

The case of Korea should be a source of inspiration to all countries.  Just half a century ago, its level of development was lower than many African countries.  But today Korea is the world’s most advanced ICT economy.  Korea's Samsung is now a world leader in communication technologies, standing head to head with Apple and beating Japan's Sony hands down.  And thanks to its impressive level of education, the country can exploit the many developmental benefits that ICT has to offer.   

International Telecommunication Union.  Measuring the Information Society 2011.

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