The United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises digital technologies as vital to ending poverty, expanding access to quality education, achieving gender equality and social inclusion, promoting inclusive economic growth, improving health outcomes and supporting cross-sectoral innovation.
Connectivity varies greatly across the world, meaning that the socio-economic opportunities of the digital age are not evenly experienced. The Indo-Pacific is highly diverse, comprising of developed, emerging and least developed economies, each at a different point in their digital journey.
The Indo-Pacific is home to countries with some of the highest, and fastest growing, connectivity rates. In many ways, the Indo-Pacific is at the forefront of the world's digital revolution. Many Indo-Pacific countries are global leaders in digital economics, cyber security, the production and global exportation of new technologies, and other cyber-related areas. The region is already the largest contributor to the world's digital markets and, by 2020, will contribute $1.4 trillion to global e-commerce. However, the Indo-Pacific is also home to some of the world's least connected countries, where Internet penetration still sits in single digits and digital opportunities are yet to be fully harnessed. Digitally enabled development must take into account inter-regional differences in connectivity and digital readiness.
Digital divides across the Indo-Pacific are the product of several factors. In some countries, insufficient financial resources and challenging topography complicate the establishment of essential communication infrastructure. In others, low literacy rates, limited technical skills, socio-cultural constraints, unaffordable service costs or unreliable electricity supply undermine access to, and use of, digital technologies. Access limitations are particularly stark for women and girls, older persons, people with disabilities, indigenous, ethnic and religious minorities, rural populations and the poor.
Australia is committed to working bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally to bridge digital divides across the Indo-Pacific. Australia is also committed to encouraging innovative uses of digital technologies to support sustainable and inclusive development.
'Information Communication Technologies can be an engine for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. They can power this global undertaking.'United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, December 2015
Internet access is a prerequisite for the effective operation of most digital technologies. Connectivity is therefore a fundamental requirement for technology-enabled development. Australia will contribute to international efforts to improve connectivity and Internet access across the Indo-Pacific. This is a task of enormous social and economic importance: estimates suggest that for every 10 per cent increase in broadband Internet penetration, a country could increase its Gross Domestic Product growth by 1.4 per cent.
To facilitate increased connectivity, countries must have the necessary infrastructure. This includes submarine cables, satellites, cross-border fibre connections, cellular data services, Internet Exchange Points, and other emerging infrastructure technologies. Connectivity also fundamentally relies upon the availability, affordability and reliability of electricity supply.
Australian support for digital communications infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific is bringing connectivity to hundreds of thousands of people in some of the most remote places on earth. Australia contributed technical expertise and financial resources (in partnership with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank) to lay a fibre-optic submarine cable connecting Samoa and Fiji. This has facilitated improved Internet access at more affordable prices. Australia has also supported projects to enhance mobile coverage in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. In 2017–18, Australia will support the laying of a new submarine cable that will provide faster and more stable Internet connectivity to the Republic of Palau.
The challenge of building adequate legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks across the Indo-Pacific will require collaboration with private sector stakeholders including telecommunications service providers and partners in the financial sector.
To make use of this base infrastructure, Internet services and Internet-enabled devices must be affordable and operate at sufficient speeds. Telecommunications market monopolies and high input costs present a significant barrier to ubiquitous Internet access. In order to improve affordability of access, it is essential to have in place the appropriate regulatory, legal and institutional frameworks. These frameworks enhance trust in Internet enabled infrastructure and services, facilitate digital trade, and help protect users and service providers.
As a competitive free market economy with well-established regulatory, legal and institutional structures, Australia has shared best practice and has continued the development of telecommunications policy and regulatory approaches with regional partners. This has occurred through our involvement in regional forums such as the APEC Telecommunications and Information Working Group and through bilateral exchanges (see Vanuatu's Regulatory Environment Supporting Greater Connectivity, below).
The private sector plays a crucial role in enabling access to the Internet. Most of the base infrastructure used for Internet access and connectivity is maintained and operated by the private sector. This infrastructure generates new markets for companies and digital products and services, while underpinning socio-economic development in those markets.
The Australian Aid program, Governance for Growth (GFG), supported liberalisation of Vanuatu's telecommunications sector. The program provided assistance to the government to break the monopoly held by Telecom Vanuatu Limited, in part through establishing the Office of the Telecommunications and Radio Communications Regulator. This led to the introduction of Digicel as an alternative telecommunications service provider. As a result, mobile penetration has increased from 27 per cent of Vanuatu's population in 2008 to over 80 per cent in 2016.
The GFG program also assisted the Vanuatu Government to establish the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO). In 2014, the OGCIO developed a Universal Access Policy, which compels telecommunications service providers to expand coverage to 98% of the country by 1 January 2018. This has contributed to a significant increase in availability and affordability of broadband Internet services throughout Vanuatu.
7.01 - Partner with international organisations, regional governments, development banks and the private sector to improve Internet accessibility in the Indo-Pacific
7.02 - Work with partner countries in the Indo-Pacific to develop domestic regulatory, legal and institutional frameworks that support competitive telecommunications sectors
7.03 - Promote digital inclusion across the Indo-Pacific through educational programs, leadership initiatives and strategic partnerships
The role of digital technologies as enablers of development is expanding. Inclusive access to digital technologies is critical to ensure that all individuals can more readily enjoy the benefits of increasingly digital societies.
Access to digital information and services empowers individuals. It opens new channels through which people can engage financially, socially and politically. Increasingly, core services including banking and finance, education and healthcare are most effectively accessed using digital technologies (see The Tupaia Initiative and Digital Delivery of Services, below).
E-governance – the delivery of government services through online platforms – can improve administration processes, service delivery, government accountability and transparency. Australia recognises the transformative role that digital technologies play in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government services.
Beyond this, digital technologies also provide alternative solutions to challenges. Australia has played a role in enhancing school attendance and educational outcomes across the region by providing digital reporting and lesson-planning tools to teachers and schools. Australia has contributed to the empowerment of women and girls in the region through deploying technology and training to young women, enhancing their digital inclusion and financial independence.
'By reducing information costs, digital technologies greatly lower the cost of economic and social transactions for firms, individuals, and the public sector. They promote innovation when transaction costs fall to essentially zero. They boost efficiency as existing activities and services become cheaper, quicker, or more convenient. And they increase inclusion as people get access to services that previously were out of reach.'Digital Dividends, The World Bank, 2016.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's innovationXchange is investing an initial $2 million in a collaboration with software providers to transform the availability of medical supply information across the Pacific Islands. This investment will supply partner governments with an easy to use digital dashboard showing real time essential medical supply information.
Health planners and other key decision-makers within local health systems will know where their medical supplies are stored and frontline nursing and pharmaceutical staff will be able to place and track their orders, enhancing availability of medical supplies in the areas where they are needed most.
Engagement in the formal financial sector is a catalyst for inclusive economic growth and sustainable development. It is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers of people in the Indo-Pacific who do not engage the services of a bank or similar financial institution, but the numbers are significant. We know that over 400 million people in Southeast Asia alone remain 'unbanked'. Increased participation by the APEC region in the formal financial sector will increase the region's economic contribution from $17 billion to $52 billion by 2030.
New technologies give rise to new opportunities for financial inclusion. Formalising banking by increasing access to online and mobile banking and e-financing arrangements (such as Government-to-Person digital payment systems in the Indo-Pacific) will reduce administration costs for governments and businesses, make savings more secure and increase financial inclusion, especially for women and girls and people living in rural and remote areas.
As current co-chair of the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion Subgroup on Markets and Payment Systems (alongside Mexico), Australia is engaged in promoting digital payment systems and providing secure, cost-effective digital financial services and products. The Subgroup's Guidance Note on Building Inclusive Digital Ecosystems has been a key outcome of Australia's 2017 co-chairmanship. This Guidance Note supports the implementation of inclusive digital payment systems and the provision of safe, cost-effective digital financial services and products.
Alongside government, the private sector has an important stake in the digital inclusion of countries and populations across the Indo-Pacific. Financial institutions and service providers are increasingly using digital technologies to enhance delivery of their financial products and services.
Greater connectivity has the potential to facilitate sustainable and inclusive development. However, it also brings new threats. Poor cyber security practices and low cybercrime awareness can undermine trust in cyberspace, reducing the dividends of digital technologies. Conversely, trust in the online environment sustains and extends the development-enabling capacity of digital technologies.
Australian development projects will take into account the long-term security and resilience of technologies. This will support the safety and privacy of users and build trust in online systems. Technologies that are known to be resilient to threats, and that are trusted by users, will have greater impact on development outcomes.
7.04 - Work with partner governments, the private sector and financial institutions across the Indo-Pacific to promote e-governance, online service delivery and innovative uses of technology for enhanced economic opportunity and sustainable development
7.05 - Provide guidance to ensure that digital technologies used or provided in Australian aid and non-government projects are safe and resilient
The introduction of new digital technologies will continue to act as a catalyst for development, but technological advancements can also disrupt traditional economic and labour markets. Innovative uses of technology by individuals, entrepreneurs, governments and businesses can harness digital disruption for good, upskilling workers and integrating people and economies into the global marketplace. Australia is committed to bridging digital divides within and between countries in the region by bolstering entrepreneurship, digital-ready workforces and inclusive digital trade.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are critical factors in sustaining an open, free and secure cyberspace. Innovators develop new ways for people to participate and collaborate online. Entrepreneurs take new ideas forward and enhance access to and use of the Internet. Together, these activities ensure that cyberspace remains an ever-evolving force for inclusive economic growth and sustainable development.
Australia supports public-private innovation challenges that search for innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to development challenges across the region (see CSIRO ON Prime Accelerator Program). Australia's Ambassador for Cyber Affairs will host a Technology for Development Challenge for entrepreneurs and start-ups from Australia and the Indo-Pacific to find innovative technology-based solutions to regional development challenges.
CSIRO's ON Prime Accelerator Program is working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to explore ways in which technologies that have the potential to deliver gains in connectivity, online service delivery and data collection across the Indo-Pacific can be maximised. ON Prime is an entry level, part-time pre-accelerator that helps teams validate their research through a process of customer discovery and market validation, and discover a real world application for it. Going forward, the aim is to encourage teams with research in this space to discover the value of their work and maximize their potential impact.
7.06 - Work with public and private sector partners to encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to find solutions to regional development challenges using innovative technologies
In order to realise the potential of the digital age, populations must be digitally skilled. Some countries in the Indo-Pacific have highly skilled digital-ready workforces. In many others, however, digital literacy and skills vary greatly among working populations. An absence of digital skills and technical expertise holds people back from participating fully in the digital economy.
As technology becomes increasingly available, demand for digitally literate workers will continue to expand. In order to prepare populations for increasingly digitalised jobs, schools, universities and training programs for working age and older persons must equip people with digital skills. In addition to traditional education, agile approaches to bridging skills gaps are needed across the region. Governments and businesses have a shared and growing need to work together in this area to build up digital-ready workforces.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's innovationXchange is working with private sector and university partners to source solutions to digital skills shortages across the region. Grant funding will be awarded to project proposals that will upskill Indo-Pacific populations, especially young people, women and girls, and people with disabilities.
Digitally skilled populations will themselves become catalysts for inclusive economic growth and sustainable development. Groups previously underrepresented in the digital landscape will gain the skills needed to access jobs, expanded economic opportunities, information, government services and social engagement online.
7.07 - Partner with regional governments, multilateral forums and educational institutions to build digital-ready workforces and support digital upskilling across the Indo-Pacific
Through its ongoing Aid for Trade program, Australia helps individuals, businesses and economies integrate into the global marketplace. Encouraging growth of digital trade delivers particular benefits to small businesses, women and girls, low-income groups, indigenous, ethnic and religious minorities, and others.
Australia has committed $10 million to multilateral programs that assist developing countries to undertake trade facilitation reform. This includes the World Bank's Trade Facilitation Support Program, World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility, and the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation. In 2015, Australia endorsed the G20 Digital Economy Development and Cooperation Initiative, which seeks to improve digital trade outcomes, including for developing countries and vulnerable groups.
7.08 - Support new technologies and tools for developing countries to facilitate trade, including improvements in policy and customs practices and better access to trade finance
7.09 - Focus Australian Aid for Trade efforts on connecting small businesses and women entrepreneurs in developing countries to digital economy opportunities and global supply chains
Australia's ASEAN and Mekong regional aid program is supporting increased participation in digital trade. For example, the Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations in ASEAN investment (SHIFT, $9.9 million, 2014–2018, implemented by the United Nations Capital Development Fund - UNCDF), is developing innovative digital services to help low-income women and men access financial services. SHIFT supported development of LienVietPostBank's new e-wallet. This offers the full array of low-cost banking services via a client's smartphone, supporting low-income people in Vietnam gain financial independence and growing a new market for financial services.