The United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) partners with governments to define the global rules that underlie the development of the information society. It has also assumed a growing role in seeking to employ information and communications technology in reaching the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Executive sat down with the ITU’s Secretary General Hamadoun Touré after his February visit to Beirut to discuss the ICT policy in Lebanon and the wider region.
You have referred to broadband Internet access as an essential infrastructure for participation in today’s economy. In the case of Lebanon, how do you assess the importance of broadband in the country’s participation in the global economy?
As I said [during my visit], Lebanon had a fixed broadband penetration rate of about 4.7 percent at the end of 2010, which is the highest in the non-GCC countries of the Arab region. Lebanon also has a relatively extensive fixed telephone network at about 20 percent fixed-line penetration, which is again the highest penetration in fixed-lines in the Arab region. It has been estimated that by end of 2010, 20 percent of households in Lebanon had a high-speed DSL broadband connection and therefore, Lebanon will have to prioritize increasing the number of households with internet access if it is to reach the global target put in place last October by the [ITU’s] Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which is that by 2015 40 percent of all households in developing countries will have broadband internet access at home.
How about pricing of broadband and mobile access?
Lebanon is providing relatively affordable fixed broadband penetration; according to our price basket that we published last year, entry level Internet broadband access was at 3.5 percent of average monthly income at the end of 2010, which is below the five percent target identified by the broadband commission… One must say that Lebanon has been late to introduce 3G mobile Internet penetration. Operators launched 3G only in 2011 and that was late; due to the nature of the annual contracts they have, mobile operators will not upgrade the networks through long-term investments.
Do you have figures showing the correlation between broadband penetration and ease of access and economic growth?
There are publications by the World Bank and other agencies showing that each 1 percent of broadband penetration translates into 1.38 percentage of growth in gross domestic product. You could also argue the contrary that each seven percent of GDP translates into 10 percent penetration of broadband; we will never be able to say which one is the cause and which one is the effect.
A concern in Lebanon is the political indecisiveness that could delay a new board for the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). Would in your view a non-functional TRA affect the development of telecommunications in Lebanon?
Can you imagine a game without a referee? It could be chaos; and therefore you need a referee that is not only fair but also balanced and neutral and ensures that players play a fair game. You need rules and regulations — light-touch regulations, as we always advocate, but they have to be in place. To have authority, the referee should come before the game starts. Otherwise he could be ignored. Continuity in this area [of regulatory authority] is very important.
Do you see that the political upheavals of the Arab Spring have been affecting the operating environment, from the ITU perspective?
We as ITU are assuming that today, except for one country — Syria — the Arab Spring is over and that we need to talk about economic development issues in order to start creating jobs for the people who are the most in need of them. This is why we are organizing the Connect Arab Summit in Doha for March 5 to 7 to which His Highness the Emir has invited all the heads of state and governments in the Arab region and to which I am inviting all the Arab private sector and the international private sector as well. We want to bring all the stakeholders together and talk about not only investments in infrastructure but also in content development because the region has so many things in common and could develop heavily upon common Arab heritage, Arabic language, and Arab culture.