Mobile broadband and digital inclusion: Telecom in the 2000s

The new millennium opened with high optimism over the industry’s resilience – and relentless progress — after the non-disruption of Y2K and the burst of the dotcom stock bubble. Renewed expansion focused on emerging markets, cutting-edge mobile technologies, and new services and applications beyond network infrastructure.

“You do not have to create new demand in the world,” said Yoshio Utsumi, then-Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at the organization’s flagship Telecom conference in 2003. “It is there waiting for you in the developing world.”

The world by then had nearly 2.5 billion fixed telephone lines – a billion more than four years earlier. More than two-thirds of these were installed in developing countries, with Africa in 2001 becoming the first major region where mobile use outstripped fixed lines.

Mobile phone subscriptions reached the one-billion mark worldwide by 2003 – a figure rising to 4.6 billion by the end of 2009. Internet use exploded in parallel, from 680 million users in 2003 to 1.8 billion, half of them with broadband access, by end-2009.

Broadband and Wi-Fi were the rising stars as the industry sought to overcome high spectrum prices, overcapacity, and price-slashing amid fierce competition.

Satellite services complemented optical fibre and broadband as voice, data and video continued to converge. Wireless local area networks and prepaid services offered possibilities to close the digital divide in rural, remote and low-income areas.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs), observed microfinance pioneer and Grameen Bank founder Mohamed Yunus at Telecom 06, could “offer an opportunity unprecedented in all of human history to end poverty” – but only if women and marginalized communities were enabled to tap into the benefits of market forces.

Services soar

New services spurred growth as technologies reached into practically all aspects of everyday life. Third-generation (3G) networks, mobile devices with built-in digital and video cameras, and innovative Internet apps heralded the era of consumer services. With it came industry calls for lighter-touch regulation to let innovation flourish; along with increased industry collaboration to harmonize standards and boost access through globally interoperable services.

Financial services came to be combined with mobile devices – a key breakthrough for inclusive finance in emerging economies.

Front-runner Kenya’s M-PESA mobile banking services, launched in 2007 by national telco Safaricom with global giant Vodaphone, attracted 7 million customers in its first two years, transforming lives in rural communities.

The growth of mobile broadband services put the spotlight on cybercrime – identified by Telecom delegates as a threat needing global solutions in the borderless world of international data flow.

Tech for good – and for all

High-profile speakers at Telecom 03 envisaged an information society founded on inclusion, non-discrimination, and gender equality, where technological progress would enhance individual well-being.

“The vast potential for this industry to bring about social and economic progress is within our reach,” enthused Carly Fiorina, chief executive at Hewlett Packard (HP) at the time.

But efforts were needed to spread the benefits to everyone.

Switzerland’s President Pascal Couchepin called the digital divide “a blemish on this new millennium”, adding: “Access to information for everyone is at the very heart of development.”

Reaching out to Asia

ITU Telecom World 2006 headed to Hong Kong – the first time the global event took place outside Geneva, ITU’s headquarters city in Switzerland. The change of venue paralleled the industry’s shifting geographic focus, with China by then becoming the world’s largest market for fixed and mobile telephony.

Telecom 06 stressed the importance of education – including digital literacy – to eliminate poverty and bring opportunity to all. Cisco increased the funds to for its Training Centre Initiative for Developing Countries, first launched with ITU in 2002 and active in 56 nations worldwide.

Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman of the One Laptop per Child association and a partner in ITU’s Connect the World initiative, urged the public and private sectors to work together to put low-cost laptops into the hands of children in developing economies.


A girl holding a low-cost laptop at ITU Telecom World 2006

Telecom 06 features education as a tool to bridge the digital divide


At ITU Telecom World 2009 back in Geneva, then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reinforced the wider impact of education: “Connected schools can become connected community ICT centres. They can provide a vital link to marginalized and vulnerable groups. They can become an information lifeline for women, indigenous people, persons with disabilities and those living in rural, remote and underserved areas.”

Sustainability centre-stage

Telecom 09 also featured discussions on how ICTs could serve to mitigate climate change. Mobile technologies, for example, could supply critical information to farmers in Africa on the frontline of the environmental crisis, while smart tech could save energy and cut harmful emissions from industry, transport and households everywhere.

The ICT industry was urged to examine its own performance on power consumption, recycling, e-waste, and renewable energy use.

The ongoing dichotomy – between technology as part of the problem and a key tool in any solution – remains high on the agenda at ITU Digital World 2021.

In this blog series marking the 50th anniversary of ITU Telecom, we look back at five decades of change for the industry, the specialized international agency, and the flagship conference and exhibition series. In the next episode, ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao will review his personal and professional experiences over the last decade.

This year’s edition, ITU Digital World 2021, takes place online between September and December. Explore the full event calendar and register now.

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