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Hace un año escribí este ensayo para la ITU (International Telecommunication Union) y ahora aprovecho este espacio para compartirlo con ustedes, prometo con más tiempo traducirlo al español.

Technological Convergence: benefits and challenges in the developing world

In recent years, technological convergence has impelled an irreversible global process, changing the paradigms of telecommunications and revolutionizing the industry in all of its aspects: technological, financial, regulatory and therefore, on services offered. Despite the fact that the digital divide keeps getting smaller, the differences and disparities in terms of information and communication technology levels between developed and developing countries still considerable. Issues related to rates and regional policy are preventing digital opportunities to arise in the developing world and the risk of falling behind is imminent. The objective of this paper is to analyze and discuss the benefits arising and the biggest challenges brought about by technological convergence in developing countries.

World Map of Internet Penetration: Differences and disparities in terms of ICT levels.

World Map of Internet Penetration:

1.1 Definition of Technological Convergence

There is no general agreed-upon definition of technological convergence. While generally it is understood as the trend of technologies to merge into new ones bringing together a myriad of services (e.g., Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) or, the so-called Triple Play) the term is also used interchangeably between and within contexts of integrating technologies, functions, applications, services and devices.

The European Commission’s Convergence Green Paper defines it as “the ability of different network platforms to carry essentially similar kinds of services, or the coming together of services in consumer devices such as the telephone, television and personal computer”. The OECD presents two definitions of convergence, “the growing overlaps between the technologies, services and firms active in each sector” and “the blurring of technical and regulatory boundaries between sectors of the economy”. It is therefore not just about technology, but about services, new ways of doing business and of interacting with society.

1.2 Benefits of Technological Convergence

Convergence in the sector of information and communication technologies can offer several benefits and advantages for consumers, operators, industry stakeholders and governments, as it provides considerable opportunities for the development of new services, applications and devices with a subsequent impact that leads towards a greater productivity, efficiency and convenience.

Multiple services can be provided under different network infrastructures. For instance, copper lines can be used to offer telephony, Internet and cable TV services, among others. Yet many rural areas in developing countries lack of communication infrastructure, but a unified license would allow operators to design future networks that can capture the demand for all services.

1.2.1 Economic Benefits of Convergence

Perhaps one of the most evident benefits of convergence is cost. As convergence allows traditional and new services to be offered over the same networks, the optimum sharing of infrastructure and resources will enhance efficiency and economies of scale, resulting in lower costs of operation and provision. Moreover reduction in transmission costs should considerably diminish access cost, making ICT services reasonably priced for consumers. According to the UNESCAP, it is widely recognized that affordable access to information and communication technologies plays a key role reducing the digital divide.

1.2.2 Social Benefits of Convergence

Convergence infrastructures and platforms can be used to extend penetration of community services and other relevant goals such as better healthcare; improved education and training; access to job opportunities; engagement with government services; increased agricultural productivity and self-sustaining economic development.

For instance, the reduced capital investment and increase penetration of broadband technology to under served areas could have a major impact on education and healthcare delivery by creating online organizations and communities. The key lies in the technological convergence power to improve user self-service and service delivery. In healthcare this will translate into increasing initial contacts and diagnosis via the Internet and the ability to deliver better quality care. While in education the convergence impact will be on easy access to educational resources and increased learning opportunities via flexible, lifelong learning courses.

1.3 Challenges of Technological Convergence

Although benefits are evident, technological convergence has certain challenges as it is a relatively new phenomenon. Regulatory issues, threats to existing players, monopolies, security threats and socio-ethical implications are just a few challenges that technological convergence entails all over the world and specially in less economically developed countries.

1.3.1 Policy and Regulatory Considerations

The challenges in convergence will cover the adjustment of regulations in order to be closer to technological and businesses development. The main regulatory issues are interconnection, licensing, price regulation, spectrum management, security issues, universal service obligations and to ensure fair competition without favouring particular technologies.

Governments in developing countries used -and some still do- to control prices and production in telecommunication through public ownership. However, they have not been very successful in establishing regulatory institutions, given the lack of human resources, experience and credibility. Consequently, they require cooperation, assistance and support from the international community, including the non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

1.3.2 Social and Security Implications

In the use and development of ICT there are considerations that need to be addressed, including security, privacy and intellectual property protection. Societies are susceptible to a variety of threats with unbearable consequences, such as intentional attacks on important infrastructures, systems, information and sensitive data. Security and trust issues are essential and must be consider to achieve the benefits of technological convergence.

1.4 Conclusion

In light of the fact that convergence of telecommunications plays a significant role in the economic and social development, benefits of convergence are even more meaningful for developing nations; not only due to the opportunity to leapfrog existing technologies, but also the possibility of the effective use of ICT for relevant and useful purposes. However, issues such as regulation, policies, security, rates and social implications need to be addressed particularly for less developed communities, in order to deliver the benefits of technological convergence to more people in more meaningful ways, giving least developed countries the opportunity to overcome the conditions they face and give them the tools to build their own solutions in more efficient ways.