By Bernard Schell
ABU DHABI (IDN) - Internet is known to have played a crucial role in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ aimed at overthrowing autocratic regimes and ushering in opportunities for majority of the people to shape their own future. Now a new World Bank report reveals that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries lag behind other regions in use of a technology that is as crucial as the steam engine was as a driving force behind the Industrial Revolution.
But there is no need to despair. “The Middle East and North Africa region has been the cradle of science and technology and can again use modern technology to address the contemporary problems faced by the region,” says Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for the MENA region. "We at the World Bank Group are committed to working closely with all countries in MENA to improve access and quality of broadband internet connection.”
This is because the demand for widespread access to broadband internet, a key driver of economic growth, job creation, and social inclusion, has never been greater, says the report titled Broadband Networks in the Middle East and North Africa: Accelerating High Speed Internet Access. Open competition and policy and regulatory changes could transform the region into a global leader in high speed internet, says the report which is the latest on the MENA region.
The report launched on February 6, 2014 highlights how broadband drives economic development and is core to the competitiveness of nations. However, high speed internet penetration is low in MENA compared to emerging regions in Europe and Asia, it adds.
The report examines the regulatory and market bottlenecks that are hampering the growth of the Internet in these and other MENA countries: the five North African countries (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia); the six Mashreq countries (the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza economy); the six Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates); and Djibouti and the Republic of Yemen.
“With the exception of Gulf countries, where internet access is available to broad segments of the population, in many countries of the Arab world fewer than a quarter of households have access to this essential tool,” says the World Bank. “Millions of people cannot afford internet services and are therefore excluded from the information revolution that is shaping the modern world.”
The report finds that in Morocco and Tunisia, low-income households would need to pay about 30 to 40 percent of their income to afford fixed or mobile broadband services. In Yemen, the poorest 40 percent of the population would need to spend over half of their income for mobile high speed internet. In Djibouti, the cost of fixed and mobile broadband can cost a multiple of a monthly income of the poorest 60 percent of the population.
“The Arab world is facing slower economic growth and high unemployment especially among young people and women,” says Carlo Maria Rossotto, World Bank ICT Regional Coordinator in the MENA region and co-author of the report. “Broadband can radically change the socio-economic prospects for the region and contribute to higher growth and shared prosperity.”
The study is a "first" in terms of assessing the endowments of untapped fiber optic networks belonging to energy, electricity and transport utilities, and their potential contribution to the development of affordable internet services. If used more optimally, these networks could boost broadband access, including in rural areas, says a World Bank media release.
It continues: “With 49,000km of fiber optics deployed by Algerie Telecom and over 20,000km owned by utilities, Algeria stands out as a potential regional leader. Also, Libya has extensive fiber optics networks owned by oil and gas companies that can play an important role for internet development.”
The report highlights policy recommendations for MENA countries eager to engage in broadband sector reform. These recommendations include boosting local competition between different telecom service providers to allow them to offer broadband to a larger number of people using new platforms. It pleads for exploring new models of public private partnerships, which in the view of its authors would increase the efficiency of operating and expanding broadband networks at a local level. Sharing unused fiber optic cables among utility networks would also reduce the cost of new broadband deployment and increase the resilience of existing networks, says the report.
“Moreover, the provision of incentive structures could significantly improve the feasibility of rolling out broadband services to underserved areas. For example, introducing incentives in the real estate industry could ensure that high speed internet is provided to newly built neighborhoods and buildings. Additionally, implementing policies to increase the provision of high speed internet in rural and underserved areas could promote digital literacy and stimulate greater economic opportunities and social inclusion,” says the World Bank report.
According to the media release, “the World Bank Group is committed to helping countries reduce extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. The Bank views access to information and communication technology as essential to achieving transformative change.” Rossotto assures: "Investing in broadband networks could create thousands of new jobs in infrastructure, while at the same time, developing a platform for broad-based, knowledge-driven employment in the region."
The report re-emphasizes the important contribution that broadband Internet can make and assesses the status of existing infrastructure in at least 18 MENA countries. While there is significant potential across the region, however, the take-up of broadband Internet has been slow, and the price of broadband service is high in many countries, says the report.
In large part, this is seen to stem from market structures that, too often, reflect the past when telecommunications were treated as a monopoly utility service. The report finds that there are gaps in infrastructure regionally with no connectivity between neighboring countries in some cases. Similarly, the report finds, there are gaps within countries exacerbating the (digital) divide between rural and urban areas. IDN-InDepthNews – February 10, 2014]