Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Connecting the world and role of satellite industry

As many of you know, I have been passionately involved with satellites and the satellite industry myself, since my early days at university in Mali. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to spend over 11 years working with our hosts here today, Intelsat, before I moved to ICO and then to ITU in Geneva.

As the world’s largest provider of fixed satellite services, Intelsat has been hosting GTM for over 30 years, providing an unrivalled forum for bilateral trading.

I am very grateful therefore that the theme chosen for this year’s event is ‘Connect the World’ – since this is one of our principal missions today at the ITU.

At the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, we committed to connecting the world’s unconnected by 2015 – bringing access to ICTs to every village on the planet.

Progress in meeting this ambitious goal to ‘Connect the World’ has been more than impressive.

Take Africa, for example. A decade ago, in 1998, there were just 20 million telephone lines serving – or indeed under-serving – the entire African continent.

Today, however, Africa has over 300 million fixed and mobile subscribers, and over 50 million Internet users.

As the Secretary-General of an organization which is ‘committed to connecting the world’, I cannot tell you how much this progress means to me.

As you know, ITU firmly believes that by connecting the world, and fulfilling everyone’s fundamental right to communicate, the world will become a better and a safer place. It will also become a more positive and more equitable place to do business.

Technologies such as Space communications and ground-based mobile communications, fibre-optics and broadband wireless have done a huge amount in a very short space of time to bring many more of the world’s people into the ICT fold, and will continue to do so.

But I believe that satellite communications must play a bigger role in bridging the digital divide and connect the underserved and remote areas to the rest of world. I was just a small boy in Mali when the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched into space in 1957, and I have been a passionate believer in the power of satellites ever since.

Satellite technology can help us bridge the digital divide and meet those ambitious WSIS targets.

No other technology can so quickly achieve large-scale coverage of widely-dispersed populations, or deliver quality connectivity to remote and isolated areas. If we can connect the furthest offshore sailor at sea and the mountaineer climbing an isolated mountain peak, then surely we can also connect the world’s remaining unconnected villages as well?

It is my view that the satellite industry has too often been absent from the development sphere.

We are all aware, of course, that building, launching and operating satellites is an expensive business, and that satellite capacity has historically been too costly for many people in the developing world.

But there are now exciting initiatives underway which are destined to change all that.

Notable among these is the Global Broadband Satellite Infrastructure Initiative (GBSI), which is one of the ITU’s ‘Connect the World’ projects.

Under the leadership of the ITSO, the GBSI is a public-private partnership which aims to leverage the power of satellite technology to promote affordable access to high-speed Internet services to under-served, remote and sparsely populated areas around the world. In the short to medium-term, existing excess satellite capacity will be used.

The GBSI is particularly interesting, because it recognizes the importance of three components in achieving this goal and establishing a framework for satellite broadband service. These three components are the identification of harmonized frequency spectrum worldwide; the use of an open and global transmission standard; and the harmonization of the relevant regulatory principles.

If this can be achieved, then there is no reason why access to high-speed Internet services via satellite cannot be delivered at prices and conditions which are comparable to terrestrial broadband technologies.

There is another crucial area where satellite communications make all the difference in connecting people – as we have all seen so heart-rendingly in the past month on our television screens.

That area is emergency communications.

When a disaster occurs – such as the cyclone in Myanmar, or the earthquake in China – terrestrial networks are often damaged, but satellites continue to do their job, far off in space, keeping people connected, helping coordinate vital relief efforts, saving lives and protecting communities.

Last month ITU was one of the very first agencies to arrive in Myanmar with telecommunications resources after the cyclone hit there, and was also quick to send satellite equipment to China after the terrible earthquake on 12 May – with the rapid deployment being made possible under the ITU Framework for Cooperation in Emergencies.

Satellite communication systems can play a key role in minimizing the effects of natural disasters through remote sensing and early warning systems. In confronting the global challenge of climate change, ITU is therefore intensifying its activities in integrating ICTs into disaster preparedness. Since July last year, we have provided ICT relief services to the Americas, Africa, and Asia and Pacific regions.

Governments, international organizations and businesses all need to recognize that the world has finally moved beyond aid and charity in delivering connectivity. Long-term prosperity depends instead on mobilizing investment and business resources.

It is no crime to expect a return on investment. Indeed, quite the opposite – if a virtuous circle of investment, profit and further investment is to be created, along with jobs, sustainable development, and a thriving economy.

In closing, I would therefore like to invite you to join ITU in helping connect the unconnected, and to work together with us to ensure that the essential role and future potential of satellite communications are not neglected. That way, we can bring the undeniable benefits of ICTs to the last villages, hospitals and schools which still lack any form of connectivity.

We have set ourselves very ambitious targets, but I firmly believe they can be achieved. And the satellite industry will play a key role in helping us achieve them.

•Speech by Dr Hamadoun I. TourĂ©, International Telecomunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General, to the INTELSAT – GTM 2008 held in Washington D.C. United States.

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