Nº 3 2015 > Bridging the Digital Divide

History of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau

The ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau was established in 1989, during the Plenipotentiary Conference held in Nice, France, from 23 May to 29 June 1989. At that Conference, Resolution 19 reflected the decision of ITU membership “to set up a new permanent organ, the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), with the same status as other permanent organs of the Union and headed by a Director.”

History of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau History of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau History of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau

The background of this move to create a separate Bureau is complex, and can be traced back, considerably earlier. A Technical Cooperation Department had already been created as early as 1960 within the General Secretariat to foster the establishment and improvement of telecommunication networks in developing countries. This department, with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and various financial institutions, implemented a number of national and regional projects aimed at the development of telecommunication networks and the enhancement of capacity-building programmes. Among the regional projects, it is noteworthy to mention the Réseau Panafricain des Télécommunications (PANAFTEL); the Réseau Africain de Communications par Satellite (RASCOM); the Réseau Interamericain des Télécommunications (RIT); the Réseau Asiatique; and Arab Telecommunications (ARABTEL). Regarding capacity-building, a number of national and regional centres were created, including the École Supérieure Multinationale des Telécommunications (ESMT) in Dakar, Sénégal; and the African Advanced Level Telecommunications Institute (AFRALTI) in Nairobi, Kenya.

In 1978, ITU and the UNDP jointly published a booklet in which the then UNDP Administrator, Bradford Morse, observed that “within countries, telecommunications, if given adequate capacity, can support national goals in villages far from capital cities, in factories and mines and urban areas, government offices, corporate suites and university halls. Among developing countries, closing telecommunication gaps can help to overcome some of the crippling constraints in, for example, trade, co-operative product development and natural resource utilization. lt can also help to expand the exchange of knowledge about development planning and practice”.

The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 1982 held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 28 September to 6 November devoted considerable attention to increasing technical cooperation and assistance to developing countries. This Plenipotentiary Conference adopted Resolution 20 establishing an Independent International Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development. The Commission, chaired by Donald Maitland, a former senior British diplomat, was mandated to identify the obstacles hindering communications infrastructure development, and to recommend ways in which the expansion of telecommunications across the world could be stimulated.

The Commission submitted its report in January 1985. Officially entitled The Missing Link Report (also informally known as the Maitland Report), the report drew international attention to the huge imbalance in telephone access between developed and developing countries. The report underlined the direct correlation between the availability of, and access to, telecommunication infrastructure and a country’s economic growth, and it proposed concrete solutions to fix the missing link. For example, the report observed that, “of the 600 million telephones in the world, three-quarters are concentrated in nine countries. The remainder is distributed unevenly throughout the rest of the world. While telecommunication is taken for granted as a key factor in economic, commercial, social and cultural activity in industrialized countries and as an engine of growth, in most developing countries, the telecommunication system is not adequate even to sustain essential services. In many areas, there is no system at all. Neither in the name of common humanity nor on grounds of common interest is such a disparity acceptable”.

Following the publication of The Missing Link Report, a historic first World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) was convened in Arusha, Tanzania, from 27–30 May 1985. This Conference united the ITU membership to:

  • study and exchange views on the report;
  • find practical ways of implementing relevant recommendations; and
  • discuss a range of issues relevant to the development of telecommunications, particularly in the developing regions of the world.

After intense debate, the Conference endorsed the conclusions and recommendations embodied in The Missing Link Report and unanimously adopted the Arusha Declaration on World Telecommunications Development. The Arusha Declaration called on governments and other stakeholders to work to ensure that there would be a telephone within “easy reach” of “virtually the whole of mankind” by the early part of the 21st century. It urged the governments of developing countries to accord a higher priority to the telecommunication sector in their national plans and resource allocations, and the governments and telecommunication manufacturing and operating entities in developed countries to devote greater financial and technical resources to telecommunications within the various aid programmes then available.

The work of the Maitland Commission led to the establishment of the Centre for Telecommunications Development (CTD) in 1986 and, three years later, the establishment of BDT by the Plenipotentiary Conference (Nice, 1989). At that Conference, Member States requested that the “Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) begins to function with immediate effect, to enable the Union to fulfil its responsibilities in respect of technical cooperation and telecommunication development in a more satisfactory manner”.

The specific objectives of BDT were set out in the ITU Constitution, and included:

  • To raise the level of awareness of decision-makers about the important role of telecommunications in the national socio-economic development programme, and to provide information and advice on policy options.
  • To promote the development, expansion and operation of telecommunication networks and services, particularly in developing countries, taking into account the activities of other relevant bodies, by reinforcing capabilities for human resources development, planning, management, resource mobilization, and research and development.
  • To enhance the growth of telecommunications through cooperation with regional telecommunication organizations and with global and regional development financing institutions.
  • To encourage participation by industry in telecommunication development in developing countries, and offer advice on the choice and transfer of appropriate technology.
  • To offer advice, carry out or sponsor studies, as necessary, on technical, economic, financial, managerial, regulatory and policy issues, including specific projects.
  • To collaborate with the International Consultative Committees and other concerned bodies in developing a general plan for international and regional telecommunication networks so as to facilitate the coordination of their development with a view to the provision of telecommunication services.

Under Resolution 55 of the Nice Plenipotentiary Conference 1989, ITU membership also established a High-Level Committee to examine how ITU could respond effectively to the challenges of a changing telecommunication environment, based on an in-depth review of the structure and functioning of ITU. The Committee concluded its work with a report, entitled ’Tomorrow’s ITU: The Challenges of Change’, which recommended that “the substantive work of the ITU should be organized in three Sectors: Development, Standardization and Radiocommunication”. The report further stated that the Development Sector “should encompass the current work of BDT”. These recommendations were adopted by the 1992 Additional Plenipotentiary Conference held in Geneva, Switzerland.

Under the new structure, the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) became the administrative arm of the Development Sector, with responsibilities ranging from programme supervision and technical advice to the collection, processing and the publication of information relevant to telecommunication development. The first BDT Director was elected on 16 December 1992. Arnold Ph. Djiwatampu from Indonesia took up his duties on 1 February 1993, with a priority to accelerate telecommunication development in all developing countries, especially Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

BDT carries out its work through world development conferences. Held every four years, World Telecommunication Development Conferences (WTDCs) give the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU–D) Members the opportunity to debate the latest trends in telecommunications and information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to establish the priorities of the Development Sector. Each WTDC is preceded by six regional preparatory meetings.

To date, there have been seven World Telecommunication Development Conferences:

  • WTDC Arusha, Tanzania, 27–30 May 1985;
  • WTDC Buenos Aires, Argentina, 21–29 March 1994;
  • WTDC Valletta, Malta, 23 March–1 April 1998;
  • WTDC Istanbul, Turkey, 18–27 March 2002;
  • WTDC Doha, Qatar, 7–15 March 2006;
  • WTDC Hyderabad, India, 24 May–4 June 2010; and
  • WTDC Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 30 March–10 April 2014.

The 1994 World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sought to review progress in telecommunication development since The Missing Link Report and to address the serious imbalance in world telecommunication development. In his Keynote Address, United States Vice-President AI Gore called on legislators, regulators and businesses to work together to build a Global Information Infrastructure (GII) to bring improved social and economic conditions to all people. He underlined the need for all countries to participate in this ’network of networks’ and urged the Conference to bring this goal quickly within the reach of developing countries. A number of other ministers stressed the indisputable potential of telecommunications, and underlined the serious imbalance in world telecommunication development as a constraint to the development of the global economy and a common concern to the international community as a whole. The Buenos Aires Declaration also highlighted the potential of telecommunications and ICTs to close the development gaps between developed and developing countries, as well as between densely and sparsely populated areas within individual countries.

The Buenos Aires Action Plan updated existing programmes and work already initiated by BDT and established two study groups. The conference also recognized the importance of paying special attention to the needs of LDCs, with a special programme of assistance to LDCs.

The 1998 World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Valletta, Malta, raised the question of women’s participation in telecommunication development for the first time, and emphasized the need to reflect gender balance and the needs of youth and indigenous peoples. Emergency telecommunications was another area where renewed efforts were required. BDT was also requested to enhance participation of the private sector in the activities of ITU–D and to facilitate the creation of partnerships between governments and private enterprises.

The 2002 World Telecommunication Development Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, adopted new work programmes to be implemented by BDT, focusing on regulatory reform, new technologies, e‑strategies and e‑services and applications, economics and finance, human capacity building and special assistance to LDCs. The Istanbul Action Plan enhanced BDT’s information collection and dissemination activities, as statistics and analysis are crucial for benchmarking countries, evaluating e‑readiness and making informed national policy, legislation and regulation choices for ICT development.

The Doha Declaration, adopted at the 2006 World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Doha, Qatar, recognized the success in the implementation of the Buenos Aires, Valletta, and Istanbul Action Plans. The Hyderabad Declaration, adopted at the 2010 World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Hyderabad, India, acknowledged that, together with development partners and other stakeholders, ITU had made great strides to enhance universal access and shape the emerging global information society — the Declaration noted that the level of access to telecommunications/ICTs had improved dramatically across the world.

Today, however, the digital divide remains stubbornly persistent and continues to evolve. BDT continues to track trends in global ICT through its data and statistics on ICT access, use and prices. Although the number of mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide is approaching 7 billion and almost equals the global population (corresponding to a penetration rate of 96% — see Figure), inequalities in access persist. More than half of total mobile-cellular subscriptions in 2014 were in the Asia-Pacific region. Mobile-cellular penetration was expected to reach 90% in developing countries by end 2014, compared with 121% in developed countries. Despite massive growth, ITU estimates that 450 million people still live out of reach of a mobile signal.

BDT’s Statistics Division tracks ICT trends to help monitor the global information society and identify emerging issues. For example, in 2013, BDT made the first estimates of the digital gender gap of 200 million fewer women online than men by the end of 2013, indicating that women are coming online later, and more slowly, than men. BDT also quantified the global population of digital natives, as 363 million digital natives or 5.2% of the total global population. Nearly a third or 30% of the world’s youth have been active online for at least five years. More recently, BDT has looked into the emergence of big data, and its complementarity with existing official statistics, to improve and inform policy-making and help track the information society.

BDT publishes its analysis of regional and global ICT trends in its flagship report, ’Measuring the Information Society’. In addition, BDT’s annual World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Symposium (WTIS) has become the largest gathering of experts and practitioners in the field of information society measurement. BDT has also initiated projects for assisting developing countries to improve the collection and dissemination of telecommunication indicators.

The 2014 World Telecommunication Development Conference held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2014, was organized under the theme ’Broadband for Sustainable Development’, to underline ITU’s commitment to leverage broadband as a catalyst to meet the goals of sustainable development.

The Dubai Action Plan aims to foster international cooperation; to foster an enabling environment conducive to the development of ICT networks, applications and services; to enhance confidence and security in the use of ICTs and the roll-out of relevant applications and services; to build human and institutional capacity, promote digital inclusion and provide concentrated assistance to countries in special need; and to enhance climate change adaptation and mitigation, and disaster management efforts through telecommunications and ICTs.

Today, BDT’s work addresses the many facets of the digital divide. In terms of its ongoing work, BDT maintains dialogue with ICT regulators around the world to promote an equitable regulatory environment. Its annual Global Symposium for Regulators, established in 2000 to promote information exchange among regulatory professionals, has become the industry’s flagship regulatory event, regularly attracting over 700 senior representatives from the world’s national regulatory bodies as well as private companies. Since 1998, BDT has published the Trends in Telecommunication Reform report to identify trends and emerging best practices in order to maximize the benefits of telecommunication development.

BDT is also empowering girls and young women to enter the growing field of ICTs and explore these new opportunities. The Girls in ICT initiative is a global effort to raise awareness on empowering and encouraging girls and young women to consider studies and careers in ICTs. To date, over 111 000 girls and young women have taken part in more than 3500 Girls in ICT Day events held in 140 countries around the world. The digital literacy campaign for women, launched in 2011 in collaboration with the Telecentre.org Foundation, has trained over one million unskilled women to use computers and modern ICT applications to improve their livelihoods.

To explore and capitalize on the opportunities offered by the rapid growth of mobile, in 2012, BDT launched the m‑Powering Development and Smart Sustainable Development Model Initiatives. The m‑Powering Initiative advocates for the development of technological innovations and initiatives that use mobile phones to deliver computing power to individuals and empowering development in areas such as health care, education, agriculture, commerce, banking, etc. The Smart Sustainable Development Model Initiative focuses on the link between ICT for Development (ICT4D), with ICT for Disaster Management (ICT4DM), and their role in sustainable development processes.

In close collaboration with other UN specialized agencies and programmes, BDT has also developed a number of applications and services supporting the deployment of ICT/mobile applications to improve people’s lives worldwide. For example, in cooperation with WHO, ITU launched the Be He@lthy Be Mobile initiative in 2013 to combat non-communicable diseases.

BDT is also using telecommunications/ICTs to respond to natural disasters and is working with Member States and other partners to develop disaster telecommunication preparedness plans and strategies, including taking into account the need for resilient infrastructure and systems as part of disaster risk reduction and early warning. In recent years, BDT has helped to deploy emergency telecommunication equipment to many countries in need.

Another major work area key to BDT is capacity building. The ITU Academy is a BDT initiative intended to assist developing countries through ICT education, training and development opportunities. Tailored training programmes are delivered in cooperation with numerous public and private sector partners under the Centres of Excellence (CoE) programme for government policy-makers and regulators, senior ICT executives and managers, technical and operational staff. Since the start of the initiative, thousands of professionals in the ICT sector have been trained across all regions. In 2014, the centres held over 128 training sessions which saw over 4400 ICT professionals trained through a combination of face-to-face and online training programmes.

BDT also administers the ICT Development Fund, a special programme launched in 1997. Funds are used by BDT for specific telecommunication development projects, primarily in the LDCs, small island developing States, landlocked developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Numerous telecommunication-related projects have been funded to date in all ITU regions.

Although BDT was originally established to promote technical cooperation and telecommunication development in response to inequities in access to telephony, the digital divide and inequality in access to ICTs remain surprisingly persistent. The digital divide continues to evolve and take on new forms, along with the technologies. BDT, and ITU more broadly, remain committed to connecting the world and all its citizens.


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