As 5G takes off, 2G and 3G still stay underutilised, says ITU director

Estimates show about 3 billion people will remain offline in 2020 in the absence of co-ordinated approach

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While many countries have started 5G trials, its predecessors 2G and 3G still remain underutilised, the first elected woman member of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) said.

As a specialised agency of the United Nations, ITU has permanent presence in 13 countries. Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the first woman to have attained a leadership position in its 153-year history.

"Countries are carrying out trials but still some believe that 5G is basically 4G on steroids. It's just like a space race among nations on who will reach first," Ms Bogdan-Martin, the director of the ITU's telecoms development bureau, told The National.

“When we look at 2G or 3G, our planet is covered, but still half the world is offline. We need to recognise that still a lot could be done through 2G and 3G … We can’t afford to ignore their unharnessed potential.”

Fifth generation of cellular mobile technology, or 5G, will enable rapid data transfer, energy saving, cost reduction and widespread device connectivity through Internet of Things.

ITU estimates that about 3 billion people will remain offline in 2020 in the absence of a co-ordinated approach towards connectivity.

Most of these will be in developing nations.

ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda calls for up to 50 per cent of households in developing nations to be connected to the internet by 2020, and also to minimise price discrimination that is keeping many offline.

“One of the major barriers is affordability – services are too costly or devices are too expensive,” said Ms Bogdan-Martin. 


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“Another huge issue is irrelevance of content. People don’t want to go online because they are not interested in content that is not in their local language.”

Over the past months, ITU has collaborated with other UN agencies to understand how to create content in regional languages to meet local demands.

By March or April next year, ITU expects 50 per cent of the world’s population to be online. The UN body is taking a number of initiatives to connect over a billion people by 2020. The global population is around 7.6 billion, according to UN data.

“The UN has Agenda 2030 for sustainable development and then we have 17 Sustainable Development Goals … but it is not possible to achieve them if we don’t have global connectivity,” said Ms Bogdan-Martin.

"My immediate priority is to develop infrastructure and help developing countries in Africa and South East Asia that have greatest challenges. There are least developed countries that have internet access
below 15 per cent."

“Current mobile broadband prices are still significantly more than 2 per cent of GNI [gross national income] per capita in most LDCs [least developed countries] and unaffordable for the large majority of the population,” she said.

“We have set 2025 as the target for developing countries. We have set an affordability target for entry-level broadband at 2 per cent.”

ITU estimates that it will take global investment of $450 billion in network infrastructure to connect the next 1.5 billion unconnected people worldwide.

The union is targeting that by 2025, broadband/internet user penetration to reach 75 per cent globally.

“We have limited budgets so we are playing the role of a connector by bringing bodies like the World Bank, regional banks, national development agencies and private sector around the table,” she said.

“The connectivity divide could be addressed by having the right regulatory framework to attract investments.
Besides we need recognition at the top to ensure state heads give it a priority,” said Ms Bogdan-Martin.

“Addressing digital gender gap is also essential to solve the connectivity quandary,” she added.