Internet access for the next billion people tops discussions at UN forum

13 November 2007 –

Participants at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, which has brought some 1,700 delegates from government, civil society and the private sector to Rio de Janeiro this week, called today for Internet “access for the next billion” people.

“For many countries, especially developing countries, access is the single most important issue,” the Forum’s Executive Coordinator Markus Kummer said. “The task is now to bring the next billion to the ‘Net.”

Mr. Kummer said much progress had been made in the last year in expanding Internet broadband availability. But he warned of inequalities between those with access to the Internet and those without, and predicted that the World Wide Web’s development aspects would become more prominent in the years ahead.

Helio Costa, Brazil’s Minister of Communications, said an environment of broad and fair competition was essential to bring more people online. Efficient regulatory tools could also help to stimulate lower access prices and better services.

The availability of infrastructure must come with low-cost access solutions, Mr. Costa added. But the high costs of international connections was a burden for developing countries, and solutions should be found for routing Internet traffic increasingly closer to the users to reduce prices.

Internet supply was growing, said Jacquelynn Ruff, Verizon’s Vice-President for Public Policy in International Regulatory Affairs, as operators worldwide upgraded their networks. In the last 12 months, global Internet bandwidth has risen by 68 per cent, with Latin America one of the fastest-growing regions.

The size of local markets was a problem for small countries, said Maui Sanford, President of the Pacific Islands Telecommunications Association. But competition could help create regional markets, and many countries had created regional Internet Exchange Points (IEP), through which traffic could be handled without resorting to expensive IEPs located in Europe or the United States.

At today’s afternoon session on diversity, participants stressed the importance of open, non-proprietary standards as well as the use of free and open-source software.

Brazil’s Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil said it was necessary to establish regulatory mechanisms to allow for multiple forms, languages and cultures to flourish on the Internet.

David Appesamy, Chief Communication Officer of India’s Sify Ltd., said the “disruptive nature of the Internet” had positive social aspects. Young people were meeting online and then asking their parents to “arrange” the marriage. Relationships across social castes were also mushrooming.

Monthian Buntan, Executive Director of Thailand’s Association for the Blind, said that for persons with disabilities diversity meant accessibility, and their goal was to achieve full Internet accessibility. “The Internet should be a caring, peaceful and barrier-free place,” he said.

Ben Petrazzini, of the International Development Research Centre, said diversity meant localization, and development would not happen without local capacity-building. His organization was carrying out a $2 million project in Asia to develop digital content in 11 languages, and a similar project in Africa involving 24 languages. Languages with limited numbers of speakers were at risk, and a legal agreement on loosening copyright restrictions of material for local use in these languages should be devised, he added.

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