A new United Nations report emphasises the problems of inequality across geography, gender, age groups, as well as levels of income and education, in the region. Sonja Schalin reports for Asia-Pacific Journalism.
Special Report – By Sonja Schalin
People standing in the dark, on a cliff beside the ocean. The moonshine reveals the silhouettes of half a dozen men. They are reaching for the sky with their mobile phones, screens lit up in the night.
This is the winning photograph of the World Press Photo contest 2014 by John Stanmeyer. It depicts the reality of millions of people today.
The silhouettes in the picture are attempting to reach a mobile phone signal to be able to connect with their loved ones.
In the Asia-Pacific region, development of the ICT (information and communications technology) sector is rapid. But here, expensive sim cards, bad mobile and internet connection are a part of everyday life.
ICT, being an important part of any country’s basic infrastructure in the same way as roads or ports, enables exchange of ideas and information.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the largest United Nations body serving the Asia-Pacific region, published its annual survey on issues facing the region on August 6.
The theme report was devoted to the topic of regional connectivity to enable growth and development in the region. One of the topics under connectivity is development in the ICT sector.
According to the UN report, the Asia-Pacific region is the most digitally divided in the world.
The report emphasises decreasing the digital divide between countries to prevent building up of other types of inequality across geography, gender, age groups, as well as levels of income and education.
In the Asia-Pacific region mobile connectivity varies from 13 subscriptions to 181 subscriptions per hundred inhabitants.
The same kind of variation exists for internet penetration; from one internet user to 90 internet users per a hundred inhabitants. Internet penetration in the Pacific small island developing states (SIDS) is around 20 percent, when the highest connectivity is in New Zealand and Australia.
The “digital divide” in the Asia-Pacific: This chart shows users per 100 inhabitants for the countries in the region. Source: UN data
Internet penetration has a real impact on development in countries, which is the reason ESCAP encourages investments in ICT infrastructure.
On average, a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration in the developing economies in the ESCAP region resulted in a 1.34 percentage point increase in GDP per capita growth.
This is due to telecommunications’ role as an engine for growth in its own right, and as an enabler of efficiency in other sectors.
Myanmar is the country with lowest mobile penetration. As a nation with a population of more than 60 million people only 13 per cent have a mobile phone. As recently as three years ago, in 2011, there were only one million mobile users.
“Before 2011, under the former regime, the cost of a sim card was equal to US$3000. When I bought the one I have now it was about US$300,” says Kyaw Hsu Mon, a Myanmar journalist.
The growth of mobile and internet connectivity in the Asia-Pacific region is fast. Myanmar is one example of this.
The country has taken a big step forward by making deals with two network companies, Telenor from Norway and Oreedoo from Qatar, in February this year to build the necessary infrastructure. Telenor’s first launch will be next month.
“We have promised to cover 90 per cent of the population in five years,” says Tor Odland, spokesperson for Telenor in Asia.
Prices will come down radically compared to today’s offerings; Telenor expects that people will spend approximately $2 a month on telecom services.
Odland remembers a trip to a remote village in Myanmar some months ago. The group went by bus, but for the last part they had to change to scooters.
People in this village had their cattle and farming; they did not have anything, not even power.
“It’s so remote, that if they get sick, they have to take the riverboat that takes one hour to get to the nearest hospital. It is strange to think, that soon they will go from having nothing to having everything when they get connected to the network,” he says.
Opportunities that arise from better connectivity can be found for example in health services, education and financial services. Naturally it will be much easier to do any kind of business when one does not have to travel to discuss with suppliers or customers.
According to Connelly Sandakabatu, Minister of Development Planning and Aid for Solomon Islands, ICT has had a great impact on educational opportunities on the Pacific Islands.
The University of the South Pacific offers distance education in many parts of the Pacific Islands region. Without internet connectivity, many of the students would not be able to attend tertiary education.
“In the area of phone banking, more and more people, especially those who have no opportunities for banking at all, out in the remote areas, are now able to connect to the mobile banking opportunities,” Sandakabatu says.
Indonesia is one of the countries in the region that has got further in the area of mobile connectivity with 122 mobiles per hundred inhabitants. Jakarta has the highest number of tweets in the world.
Sony Ambudi, human rights advocate from Indonesia, says now that phones are cheap people feel a certain personal freedom because they can use social media in their daily lives.
“People are euphoric. For so many years they couldn’t express themselves. Now they can, and they want people to know what is going on.”
While Shamshad Akhtar, Under-Secretary-General of the UN and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, says that “the theme study presents a new reflection for the 21st century regional connectivity framework” and that it “calls for establishing new corridors and hubs to advocate an integrated model”, challenges still persist.
The Pacific Islands is a vastly spread out region. Minister Sandakabatu from the Solomon Islands says the remoteness from the main centres has been the most difficult challenge for the region.
Xanana Gusmão, Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, is worried about regional inequalities.
“The important corridor that I see in the Asia-Pacific region is how to develop an integrated plan in a more equitable way. Just look at the ASEAN countries, we have many levels of development,” he says.
There are many obstacles before the region can be fully connected in terms of ICT.
Odland from Telenor describes the challenges in Myanmar. Myanmar is a country where power is scarce in rural areas, but network towers require power to function.
Ethnic conflicts in many areas require dialogue with the local communities. Telenor’s zero tolerance for corruption can result in tough negotiations with the local business community.
Telecommunication regulation is complex, and many countries do not have a fully developed regulatory environment.
Odland explains: “In Asia we have experienced that governance is sometimes unpredictable. In some countries we have seen our licences challenged or the sudden introduction of new taxes.
“In Myanmar, you might also have issues such as the climate creating problems; right now it’s the rainy season, which means harder access to remote areas,”
“The one word that everybody is asking us is ‘when’, ‘when will we have this?’”
Sonja Schalin is a student journalist from Finland on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University. She is on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.