Earlier this week in Geneva, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) released the results of the first global index to rank information and communication technology (ICT) access.

Apart from Canada, ranked 10th, the top ten economies are exclusively Asian and European. The Digital Access Index (DAI) distinguishes itself from other indices by including a number of new variables, such as education and affordability. It also covers a total of 178 economies, which makes it the first truly global ICT ranking.

Countries are classified into one of four digital access categories: high, upper, medium and low. According to a release from the ITU, countries in the upper category include mainly nations from Central and Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Gulf States and emerging Latin American nations. Many have used ICTs as a development enabler and government policies have helped them reach an impressive level of ICT access.

The Bahamas was ranked third in the Americas region for providing access to information and communications technology, behind only Canada and the United States. Overall, it ranked 37th among 178 economies surveyed.

The 2003 “Policy Statement on Electronic Commerce and The Bahamian Digital Agenda” clearly states the Government is actively pursuing strategies that will establish The Bahamas as a centre for excellence in e-commerce. The nation’s E-Business strategy is being guided by the following policy framework:

· The creation of an internationally compatible legal and regulatory framework that accommodates rules for commercial transactions;

· A conducive system for the protection of intellectual property rights in cyberspace;

· Security, interoperability and interconnection of information systems;

· Issues relevant to privacy, such as protection for personal information and confidentiality of consumer related matters;

· The development of technologically competent human resource capabilities;

· The principle of universal access that ensures the availability of Internet access at affordable prices; and

· A universal service policy that guarantees Internet access free of charge to various public, educational, health and social organizations.

The three pieces of e-commerce legislation recently enacted reflect the Government’s recognition of creating the right environment for e-business:




**Redefining ICT Potential**

The results of the International Telecommunication Union’s new Digital Access Index suggest that it is time to redefine ICT access potential. *”Until now, limited infrastructure has often been regarded as the main barrier to bridging the Digital Divide,”* says Michael Minges of the Market, Economics and Finance Unit at ITU. *”Our research, however, suggests that affordability and education are equally important factors.”*

To measure the overall ability of individuals to access and use ICTs, the ITU study has gone beyond the organization’s traditional focus on telecommunication infrastructure, such as mobile phones and fixed telephone lines. Affordability was determined to be a critical success factor with research also showing that Internet use is closely linked to education.

Importantly, the results of the Index point to potential stumbling blocks in ICT adoption and can help countries identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.

**Information Societies Need Better Tools to Set Targets, Gauge Progress**

ITU’s efforts to identify indicators for measuring ICT access reflects a growing trend by the international community towards the use of transparent and concrete measurements for monitoring country performance. The United Nations has adopted a set of development targets, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and associated indicators to monitor progress towards the reduction of poverty, hunger and other areas. Access to ICTs is included in the MDGs and laid out in Target 18: *”In cooperation with the private sector make available the benefits of new technologies, specifically information and communication.”* According to the ITU, the Digital Access Index provides a concrete tool to help measure this key target.

The discussion around ICT is particularly important, given the recognition that widespread access can boost economic development and improve citizens’ lives. The Internet allows instant access to information from anywhere, anytime and holds major promises in improving health care, delivering education and protecting the environment. ICTs have equally been identified as a crucial tool to overcome other development goals, including the MDGs.

The DAI forms part of the ITU’s upcoming 2003 edition of the World Telecommunication Development Report (WTDR). Published to coincide with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) next month, it will be a vital reference for governments, international development agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to assess national conditions in information and communications technology.