Nº 5 2013 > Planning for progress
Why national broadband plans matter
According to new research, countries with a clearly defined national vision for broadband roll-out are significantly out-performing those taking a more laissez-faire approach to broadband development.
On 1 July 2013, ITU, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development and network equipment maker, Cisco Systems, released a report on “Planning for Progress: Why National Broadband Plans Matter”. According to new research, countries with a clearly defined national vision for broadband roll-out are significantly out-performing those taking a more laissez-faire approach to broadband development.
The report highlights strong recent growth in national broadband plans, with 134 such plans in force by mid-2013. Plans may take different forms (legislation, policy frameworks, government strategy and/or regulations), but all share a common emphasis on the vital role of broadband in underpinning national competitiveness, and aim to extend the national footprint of broadband networks and drive increased use of broadband-enabled services and applications.
Plans have changed focus over time. Policy measures produced between 2000 and 2008 generally tended to have a broader focus on information technology (IT), information and communication technologies (ICT) or the information society. Between 2008 and 2013, a growing number of plans focused explicitly on broadband, while even more recently, policies have addressed the broader, cross-sectoral considerations of the digital agenda. Plans prior to 2005 tended to target IT or ICT. The information society was most popular as the focus of plans in 2007–2008, with broadband growing sharply as the main area of interest from 2008 onwards. Most recently, a small but growing number of plans have focused on the digital agenda. Although broadband plans and digital agendas are clearly related, national broadband plans focus mainly on infrastructure, while digital agendas include broader additional considerations of content, services and applications.
The nature of the plan obviously matters (with important differences in status between binding statutory requirements, broad policy guidance or detailed regulations), but its exact name (plan or policy framework, for example) is less significant than factors such as political support, buy-in, the quality of the plan itself (which ideally should be comprehensive and clearly identify priorities), and enforceability. The full benefits of broadband for enhancing national competitiveness and empowering citizens are most likely to be realized where there is strong partnership between government, industry and other stakeholders, and where governments engage in a consultative, participatory approach to policy in conjunction with key stakeholders.
In a fast-changing technological environment, plans should be regularly reviewed and updated. With average lifespans for superseded plans of 8.4 years and existing plans of 7 years, they need to be updated more regularly to accommodate the rapid shifts in the industry (in revenue, pricing and technology). Revisions every 3 to 5 years are likely to balance the costs of policy-making with developments of a fast-changing industry.
Recognizing the nature of broadband as a vital enabler of progress across different sectors, it is important to move from silo-thinking about infrastructure and roll-out targets to a more comprehensive point of view encompassing different sectors.
Examining the sectoral goals contained in national broadband plans in more detail, it is evident that education is the top priority, being referenced in 86 per cent of all plans. Around four-fifths of all plans contain references to e‑government and citizen participation and employment, reflecting the utility of broadband networks for accessing information and government services, creating and accessing jobs, and participating in citizen processes. Three-quarters of all plans address health and healthcare delivery. Public-private partnerships, technology transfer and innovation are referenced by six out of ten plans; while accessibility, environmental sustainability, poverty reduction and gender are referenced by around a third of all plans (see figure). Here, more than ever, the vital importance of broadband as a cross-cutting platform for the delivery of services in many other sectors is apparent.
The report concludes that broadband plans should be viewed more as part of a process towards building consensus around a vision for the development of broadband within a society, rather than the final outcome itself. Plans are a means of dialogue, which should seek the views and engagement of all key stakeholders. Ultimately, there is no single way to improve broadband; there are many different ways, with different success factors, depending on the specific needs and circumstances of each country.