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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Some may argue that the digital divide is dead, but a new gulf — the broadband divide — is impeding poor countries' efforts to develop sustainably, a meeting on the sidelines of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) heard this week.

Mobile phone technology is now firmly established. In a world of seven billion people, six billion mobile phones are currently in use.

But the broadband story is very different. Just four per cent of people in developing countries are subscribed to fixed broadband, compared with 25 per cent in developed countries.

In 2010, just five per cent of people in the developing world could access broadband on their mobile phones, compared with 42 per cent in developed countries, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency specialising in information and communications technology (ICT) development.

"Broadband is essential to fulfilling what has become a reality — that ICTs are fundamental to all three pillars of sustainable development [economic, social and environmental]," said Gary Fowlie, head of ITU's Liaison Office.

This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20

Broadband is a telecommunications signal that uses a wide range of frequencies, allowing for larger data flows and thus high-speed internet access. Many developing countries currently lack either the necessary fibre-optic and wireless networks, or cannot afford access to international submarine cable and satellite services.

in broadband infrastructure would have spillover benefits for all pillars of sustainable development — for example, by spawning programmes in e-agriculture, e-health, and e-education — and would spur economic growth, said Fowlie. 

A ten per cent expansion of broadband networks could lead to a 1.38 per cent growth in GDP (gross domestic product) in low and middle income countries, reported the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, which was set up in 2010 by the ITU and UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

In advance of Rio+20, the commission presented a 'call to action' to include broadband as a sustainable development goal.

But others argued this week that barriers to sustainable development would be better overcome by addressing the growing gap in knowledge regarding use of ICT services.

Nitin Desai, former under-secretary-general in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told the meeting that cultivating capacity to apply new and emerging technologies was critical to achieving desired sustainable development outcomes. 

This could be achieved through nurturing the capacity of end-users such as farmers, and of service-providers such as health professionals, he said. 

Nathaniel Manning, director of business development and strategy at Ushahidi, a Kenya-based non-profit technology company, said that poor communities were not yet using non-broadband mobile services to their full capacity. These services include Mxit, a social network based on mobile messaging developed in South Africa, and M-Farm, an SMS service enabling farmers in Kenya to access information on product retail prices.

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20. Read more in our live blog.