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[CAIRO] Limited access to broadband Internet is crippling the spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the developing world and widening the already significant digital divide, a report has warned.

Bandwidth availability is low and the cost of broadband Internet is high in many developing countries, says 'Information Economy Report 2009', released last week (22 October) by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Prices can reach more than US$1,000 per month in countries such as Burkina Faso and Kazakhstan. Australia, a country with little more than 20 million residents, has more broadband users than the whole of the African continent.

This broadband gap deprives developing country businesses of economic development opportunities such as call centres and offshore offices.

"Broadband access is almost a must for companies with international branches," Ahmed Ali, a software engineer at computing giant IBM's Egypt branch, told SciDev.Net.

While major companies such as his use a satellite Internet connection, smaller companies that provide offshore services for businesses in other regions need a fast communication channel.

"If broadband is not sufficient then it will be a problem for them and may hinder progress of their work," he says.

But the mobile phone market is booming in the developing world despite the economic crisis, the report found. Mobile phone penetration reached 100 per cent in countries such as Bahrain, South Africa and Qatar. Growth in mobile use increased more than eightfold in less than ten years.

Mobiles are becoming the preferred mode of communication over landlines and are increasingly fulfilling ICT needs.

"We now see three and four mobile service providers opening up in these countries to fill demand. For many people, it is becoming an important tool for business as well as accessing the Internet," Ahmed Momtaz, a telecommunication engineer at Vodafone Egypt, told SciDev.Net.

The report suggests governments can work with Internet providers to narrow the broadband gap by

promoting competition to bring down prices and the sharing of infrastructure to reduce costs by preventing duplicate efforts. Governments can also promote Internet centres to offer access to people in poorer regions.

The UNCTAD report also calls for the expansion of underwater fibre optics network, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Link to full report [2.74 MB]