ITU Secretary General: Connecting the unconnected

Houlin Zhao talks about the relevance of a connected world
Houlin Zhao, secretary general of the ITU.
Houlin Zhao, secretary general of the ITU.

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Houlin Zhao was elected secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for information and communication technologies (ICTs) during the ITU’s 19th Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, Republic of Korea.

He is not new to the role, as he has been working closely to the previous secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, as deputy secretary general of the organisation. During the ITU Telecoms World Conference, hosted in Doha, Qatar, Zhao talked with CommsMEA about the needs of a connected world and pointed out the need of public and private partnerships (PPP) to bring connectivity to rural and remote areas.

“The ITU will do whatever it can to connect these areas, the areas that have not been connected yet. There are areas that are poorer and the development there will not give much profit after making the investment. If you do not get any profit, how can you ask them [operators] to do it,” Zhao said.

Zhao encouraged investors to meet this aim, but he also highlighted the importance of a sustainable business model. “In the cities, we enjoy optical fibre but in the rural areas it is not realistic nowadays to have these services, it could be in 10 or 20 years time. Regarding mobile connections, we face different problems. Some parts of the population, in some countries, smartphones are still too expensive. How can you connect a rural area with mobile services when people cannot afford the mobile phone or charging their mobile phone? In some areas they might not have the power to charge these devices.”

Zhao comments that some governments have invested and have built telecoms towers in these rural areas, to help to enable connectivity. “Some governments use public funds to set connectivity in rural areas, but it is not enough. We need to create a good market environment. The government enabled that for the operators but then nothing happened. Operators said that even, if they [governments] enable that, they can invest in other places more profitable and better for their business.”

Zhao believes that, in some cases, building a tower or the infrastructure is “just a political measure”. “They want to show people that they are doing something for them, so they go and they put a tower there. The operators are not interested and they will not invest in initiatives that are not profitable.”

The new secretary general believes that, in order to fix this private and public relationship to promote connectivity, governments' need to mobilise public funds to support these projects and operators need to organise some money to help people that are not connected yet.

“We encourage this conversation between the industry and the governments to agree and find a business model that helps governments to pay the investment that they have made and also to guarantee sustainability to the operators that continue with the investment. Otherwise, we need sustainability, even the charity needs to be sustainable,” he added.

The organisation is encouraging the government and the industry to reduce charges in rural areas, according to Zhao. “Both have to coordinate. In Mexico, Carlos Slim suggested to me that, for example, if calls wanted to be increased, the industry needed to sacrifice also. For instance, the calls originated from remote areas should cut prices by half and the government should reduce the price too.”

Mobile data growth

Another hot topic discussed during ITU Telecoms World conference was mobile data growth, as the telecommunications industry is demanding more spectrum to allocate to meet the future demand.

Zhao believes that the Middle East and Africa region is aware of this future need. “My personal observation is that, in 2015, everyone will be in favour of giving more spectrum to mobile. But all those spectrum requested by GSMA [Sub-700MHz UHF, L-Band, 2.7-2.9 GHz and C-Band] will need to be checked. We have to see during the next ten months if they have enough arguments to convince and see if it is possible,” he commented during the interview.

The telecommunications industry is not the only one lobbing to more spectrum, as the broadcasting and satellites sector also wants to be considered, highlighted Zhao.

He considers that the spectrum used for public interest does not need to be shared with operators in the region.

“The mobile industry has a lot of support from everywhere, because they offer services to all the consumers. If it [spectrum] is free, if it is empty, that is not a question, we can have more flexibility to assign it. If it [spectrum] is already used by somebody, we should not kill it, we cannot kill it, if they still exist and if it is active, there must be some reasons and some supporters and sometimes they cannot be easily eliminated, we cannot support that,” he said.

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