Broadband is a ‘human right’, says O’Brien

Access could lift countries out of poverty, Digicel chief tells summit

Broadband access is a basic human right that should be used as a catalyst to lift developing countries out of poverty through improved access to healthcare, education and basic social services, the chairman of Digicel, Denis O’Brien, said last night.

As a member of the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development at the conclusion of its two-day summit in Dublin, Mr O’Brien called on the international community to facilitate private sector roll-out of high-tech infrastructure.

The commission repeated a call made at its last meeting in in New York last September for the international community to recognise the “transformational potential of high- speed networks” and to ensure broadband penetration targets were specifically included in the UN post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

It also urged governments and international financing bodies to dismantle barriers to investment.


The meeting heard that as much as 95 per cent of telecommunications infrastructure was private sector funded.

However better incentives were “urgently needed” if investment was to expand in line with the coming exponential growth of connected users and so-called “internet of things” data streams.

The commission was established in 2010 as a top-level advocacy body focusing on strategies to make broadband more available and affordable worldwide. It includes some of the world’s most prominent leaders from the tech sector, government, academia and UN agencies.

It was in Dublin at the invitation of Mr O’Brien who owns the Digicel Group. Digicel has more than 13 million mobile customers in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia-Pacific. The group is investing heavily in mobile broadband.

Global economy
"The long-sought panacea to human poverty may at last be within our reach in the form of broadband networks that empower all countries to take their place in the global economy, overcoming traditional barriers like geography, language and resource constraints," the Digicel chairman said. He called on governments to lower spectrum licence fees and he suggested the establishment of a "champions league"' index to track best practice in broadband investment and deployment.

Mr O’Brien accepted that broadband alone would not be sufficient to address to the problems besetting the developing world but he said that it could be used a “catalyst” to bring about improved access to healthcare, education and improved inward investment and job creation.

Efficiency in education
Rwanda's president Paul Kagame chaired the meeting. He said broadband and ICTs could deliver more efficiency in education, health, finance, banking and other sectors.

"In Rwanda, the broadband model we have adopted is based on effective public-private partnership, guided by what works on the ground," he said. "This has allowed broadband and ICT to continue to play an important role in the progress we have made towards the achievement of the [UN] Millennium Development Goals."

Rwanda is currently rolling out a nationwide 4G mobile broadband network through a public-private partnership. Mr Kagame urged commissioners to go beyond infrastructure and work to ensure its use.

“Our initial focus was on connectivity, to put the infrastructure and tools in place to connect citizens to the digital era,” he said. “Onwards, our efforts need to focus on unleashing the smart use of broadband to help people use services in ways that will significantly improve their lives.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast