The incoming head of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has told V3 that economic challenges present the biggest hurdle to the telecoms industry in its efforts to get the entire world online.
The ITU, a body of the United Nations, reported earlier this week that there are now three billion people online.
This is an impressive number, but it also means that around three billion are still without web access.
Speaking to V3 a month before he takes up the post of ITU secretary general, Houlin Zhao (pictured) said he will focus his tenure on ensuring that access to the web is made available to everyone, regardless of location.
"We know ICT greatly contributes to social and economic development, but at the moment it is not used equally so we have to introduce new services so that everybody can benefit,” he said.
Zhao explained that mobile broadband is "definitely" the solution, as it is far easier to roll out in remote areas.
"If you look at fixed broadband, connections are actually falling as mobile penetration increases," he said.
Zhao noted how in some parts of Africa, for example, 4G connections are now commonplace as demand for mobile broadband in major cities rockets.
However, he admitted that economic questions about how operators can make services available in remote areas in a cost-effective way are a key concern.
“To invest in those [remote] areas does not bring much profit. So how can we make things profitable and sustainable?” he said.
“Competition is very tough, and this is good for the industry, but companies have to worry about how to attract customers, how to offer lower prices and how to invest in services to keep those customers.”
On top of these burdens, Zhao also questioned whether telecoms operators need more help from governments, as their contribution to the wider economy and global market place is currently overlooked.
“Governments always say telecoms is good for business, and in some counties it contributes as much as 10 to 15 percent of GDP. But governments take a lot of money from these [telecoms firms],” he said.
Zhao also noted that "over the top" players, such as Skype and WhatsApp, are driving huge demand for data on networks, but not sharing any of the burden of providing the networks that support the data.
"So the operators ask questions about the benefits of this and whether the current business model is good or not. That is a challenge to our industry," Zhao added.
V3 also asked Zhao whether the revelation that telecoms cables are routinely intercepted by government spy agencies is damaging trust among nations that form the ITU.
He said that this is not currently preventing cooperation, as those involved are able to "rise above" such concerns and continue their focus on the development of new services such as 5G networks.
Zhao takes charge of the ITU on 1 January after being voted in at a recent ITU meeting in Busan, Republic of Korea.
Zhao won 152 votes from 156 ballot papers deposited in an uncontested election. He was previously ITU deputy secretary general, and has spent 15 years at the organisation.
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