The development of information and communications technology (ICT) is a significant step toward empowering individuals and reducing poverty in the countries of Asia and the Pacific. Telecommunications, a vibrant economic sector in its own right, is also increasingly seen as a facilitator of economic development, bringing essential services, such as health, education and government, to previously-excluded populations.
Read this interview with ADB’s Susheela Venkataraman, who explains how ICT can help bridge socioeconomic divides in Asia and the Pacific.
The potential for applications such as e-learning is huge but so are the challenges, as the digital divide between education systems in developing and developed countries is widening dramatically. In most of Central and West Asia, for example, while the importance of ICT in education has been recognized widely, applications are still in their infancy and their role and impact is yet to be fully determined or realized.
Asia has greatly benefitted from the worldwide mobile telephony boom of the last few decades. Jobs have been created in manufacturing and services across the region, and income generated for operators, manufacturers, service providers, content developers and governments..
Perhaps even more significantly, mobile devices are being used as an engine of development for the region. In those countries with limited infrastructure, mobile phones serve as the universal access tool, especially for their low-income populations, allowing them to catch up with the rest of the world.
In Afghanistan’s remote villages, for example, mobile technology is connecting people and ushering in a telecom “revolution”.
ADB helped Afghanistan's largest telecom operator develop a nationwide mobile phone infrastructure and expand cellular services in the last ten years. Telecom Development Company Afghanistan, known as Roshan, now has over 5 million active subscribers, up from about 3.2 million subsribers in 2010, and a network that covers over 230 cities and towns in all of the country’s 34 provinces. Its innovative services such as telemedicine, mobile trade, mobile banking, public call offices, and a mobile wallet system called M-Paisa, have helped improve lives and livelihoods, and empower women.
ADB has financed the broadband and backbone infrastructure in some Asia-Pacific countries to improve cross-border connectivity and rural access using public–private partnerships. These projects go from establishing regional ICT infrastructure (through fiber-optic backbones and regional exchange hubs) to public ICT access (through broadband wireless networks and rural community e-centers) in the community.
In Bangladesh, for example, ADB assistance to Grameen Telecom has helped provide mobility and connectivity to more than 23 million subscribers. The country's mobile revolution began in 1997 with the introduction of the Village Phone program, for which ADB's private sector operations provided an initial investment of US$1.6 million in equity and US$16.7 million in loans.
Providing connectivity in the Pacific has also been a huge challenge to ADB and its partners. For the small, isolated Pacific islands, access to more affordable and reliable telecommunications, particularly high-speed Internet, offers new economic opportunities. It has been estimated that a 10% increase in broadband penetration raises gross domestic product (GDP) by over 1% in such countries.
Hans Van Rijn, ADB Senior Public Sector Management Specialist, Pacific Operations, said that improved ICT could really be a game changer in the Pacific provided that some conditions are met.
"For the development potential to be realized, you would need the correct infrastructure," he says.
Read, how, when infrastructure, regulation and application come together, improved broadband connectivity has a positive economic and social impact which, ultimately, can support an inclusive growth path.
In Tonga, the recently announced 827km fiber optic cable system linking the country to Fiji via the Southern Cross Cable – the main trans-Pacific link between Australia and the United States – will provide Tonga’s population of 100,000 with affordable and accessible information and communication technology services.
Mobile is also making inroads in the Pacific region. In the Solomon Islands, ADB has established a technical assistance project, Renewable Energy for Telecom Networks, to support mobile operators to increase the penetration of high-quality, affordable mobile services in an efficient, sustainable and socially responsible manner.
Papua New Guinea is among those that joined the wave of Pacific island countries liberalizing their telecommunications industries. The ADB Digicel Mobile Telecommunication Expansion Project, launched in 2009, is at the forefront of these efforts. The project is helping the privately owned telecom company Digicel to expand network capacity and coverage. The $25 million ADB loan funded the construction of two mobile phone towers, as well as phone towers in other remote locations across Papua New Guinea.