Eric Postel is the Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade Bureau. 

President Obama, while attending the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, announced a new Broadband Partnership of the Americas (BPA), with a focus on expanding access to the Internet.  This Partnership is the first region-wide extension of the Global Broadband and Innovations (GBI) program, originally launched by USAID in the fall of 2010.

Within the international development community there is growing recognition of the value of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in advancing economic growth, and in enhancing the delivery of health, education, agriculture, and other services.  For that reason, ICTs are essential to achieving several of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and MDG Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development has a target of making available new technologies, especially information and communications. In 2005, the United Nations World Summit on Information Services (WSIS) established ten priority ICT-related targets.  Of these ten targets, “connect villages” is the first.  2010 data show progress against this target with mobile subscriptions reaching just under 70 percent of the population in developing countries, and the Internet reaching just over 20 percent.  Clearly there is more work to be done, however.

A key component for leveraging ICTs within USAID’s development portfolio is expanding access of both mobile and broadband networks.  While much progress has been made, three constraints remain.  First, there is still a rural population of more than one billion people who do not have mobile coverage.  Second, most of the mobile networks put into place during the last decade are capable only of voice and text, but do not support full Internet access.  And third, there is the issue of affordability. Even where networks are available, pricing is often beyond the reach of the lower-income populations that are often the focus of USAID’s programs, especially in rural areas where connection costs are high.

The GBI program is addressing these constraints by providing technical assistance to universal service funds (USFs).  USFs are created from taxes placed on telecommunication carriers for the purpose of supporting rural build-outs.  In addition, the GBI is working with private sector equipment manufacturers and carriers to deploy innovative, affordable and scalable solutions appropriate for small, rural communities.

The most exciting aspect of the new Broadband Partnership of the Americas announced by the President, from my perspective, is the fact that it focuses on the Americas — that is, on countries in our own hemisphere.  It builds on earlier successes and melds the expansion of telecommunications with clean-energy solutions.  BPA also pulls together a rich partnership of local and international public and private sector entities with a specific focus.  This approach, especially in our hemisphere, underscores once again that working together we can make a difference.