Opening Statement of the Joint Session of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway Steering Group Meeting and Seventh Meeting of the Working Group on the Asian Highway Network

Delivered at Joint Session of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway Steering Group Meeting and Seventh Meeting of the Working Group on the Asian Highway Network in Bangkok, Thailand

Distinguished delegates,

Welcome all to the joint meeting of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) Steering Group and the 7th Session of the Working Group of the Asian Highway Network.

The AP-IS and Asian Highway are two of ESCAP’s longstanding and flagship initiatives aimed at developing integrated and seamless connectivity in support of the Regional Roadmap for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Just two weeks ago at ESCAP, ministers recognized developing seamless connectivity across the region is central to our push to intensify and expand regional economic cooperation and integration to create opportunities for achieving broader SDG progress.

Against this imperative, the objective of today’s joint session is to consider the net benefits that emanate from the co-deployment of fibre-optic cable along the Asian Highway network. Fibre-optic cable is the infrastructure of choice for the high speed – or broadband - transport of digital information.

This joint session reflects the way emerging technologies are changing human behavior and reshaping the UN’s normative agenda. ESCAP must harness new technology to improve our support to member countries, and to position ourselves as the essential regional platform for emerging norms.

The benefits of deploying fibre-optic cable along infrastructures such as power grids, railway lines and highways are well known. Our research shows how several countries spanning the development spectrum, including the United States, Sweden, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, China, the Philippines, India and Bangladesh, have worked towards this objective for over a decade. These initiatives have mainly been at the national level. But increasingly transboundary infrastructure projects are also being pursued. The Baku – Tbilisi - Kars Railway project plans the co-deployment of fibre-optic cables along the railway connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The World Bank-sponsored CASA-1000 project joins the upstream hydropower countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia with power deficient Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia through a 1000 km power transmission grid. It is adding a second component namely “digital CASA-1000”. This will use the ground wire of the grid – a fibre optic wire - as the natural conduit for the transmission of digital data.

In October 2014, the two Committees on ICT and Transport met for the first time in a joint session. Drawing on a series of technical studies undertaken by ESCAP, the joint session recommended that consideration should be given to amending the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Asian Highway Network to encourage co-deployment. Subsequently, in October 2016, following the endorsement by its Prime Minister, the Government of Bangladesh submitted to the secretariat a proposed amendment to Annex II of the Asian Highway Network Agreement. In line with the recommendations of the two Committees, this amendment is up for consideration and adoption at this 7th Session of the Working Group on the Asian Highway network.

There is a clear case for the co-deployment of fiber optic cables along the Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway networks – one which has been recognised by ICT policy-makers. For this the implementation of Commission Resolution 73/6, which supports the development of the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway - AP-IS - is critical. It is a clear plan for seamless regional broadband connectivity and for affordable, reliable and resilient broadband networks across all ESCAP member countries, to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In this regard, the first session of the Steering Committee of AP-IS organized by the Government of Bangladesh in partnership with ESCAP, underscored the cost-efficiency and developmental dividends of co-deployment, particularly when deploying broadband infrastructure, in digitally unconnected or underserved rural areas, through which the Asian Highway routes run and where many of the region’s dry ports are located. Rural populations account for a large part of the population of developing countries and should not be denied the access to ICT.

Today, we have a unique opportunity to agree on an amendment that makes a concrete contribution to the Agenda 2030 aspiration of leaving no-one behind. This is a key objective for ESCAP because our evidence shows the digital divide in the region is widening. According to an ESCAP report entitled “Artificial Intelligence and Broadband Divide”, 18 ESCAP countries have less than 2% fixed-broadband subscription, whereas the Republic of Korea, for example registered over 40%, with broadband speeds that are rising exponentially even as costs continue to decline. Even more worrisome is that in those countries lagging, there has been limited progress over the years. As frontier technologies which are fully dependent on high speed internet connectivity, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, take root in advanced countries, we need to use existing infrastructure connectivity opportunities better if we are to address their uneven access and adoption. Unless multiple stakeholders make a concerted effort to address the digital divide, the uneven growth of the digital economy and society will widen existing inequalities in the region. Without affordable and resilient broadband networks, the benefits of intelligent transport systems, smart cities, state-of-the art dry port hubs, paperless trade and e-commerce will not lead to inclusive sustainable development.

At this session we will benefit from the views of industry, the transport community and other experts. But at the outset I refer you to a study conducted by Deloitte and the Association of Progressive Communication (APC) which finds that through co-deployment, the cost of infrastructure development would drop from USD 20 million to USD 1.3 million per 1,000km of fiber optic. Around 80% of the costs of laying fibre optic cables is in acquiring “rights of way” and public works, namely digging the ducts. Co-deployment, therefore, brings significant cost savings related to readily available “rights of way”. Furthermore, the principle of “dig once, use many times” diversifies revenues. A fiberoptic cable owned by a national road authority can result in new and augmented revenue streams that can be reinvested in the road maintenance fund which is perennially in deficit. Railtel in India, for example, after years of mounting debt puts its operations back in the black through the leasing of its fiberoptic cable to telecom operators.

The Asian Highway as a road network of 32 Asian countries that spans 141,000 kilometres from Japan to Turkey, with linkages to Europe, provides a meshed configuration that is inherently resilient. As fibreoptic cables are prone to frequent breakages there is a constant need for seamless re-routings around the broken link. A meshed network offers such redundancies.

Distinguished delegates,

My support for the amendment proposed by Bangladesh does not intend to diminish the complexities inherent to cross-border connectivity of infrastructure. Sharing of revenues, fee structures, ownership of infrastructure, regulatory inconsistencies are all sensitive points which need to be carefully worked out. But over the next 3 days, I hope we can lay the foundations for an iterative process which will firm up the building blocks necessary for change. We have a unique opportunity to bring the central position the Asian Highway holds for regional connectivity into a forward-looking seamless connectivity agenda that can accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals in the region. This is an opportunity we should seize.

I look forward to hearing the outcomes of your discussions.