A new study released by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) examining for the first time the correlation between broadband expansion and six variables confirms what many have suspected: The existence of a national broadband plan is the most important factor affecting the speed by which broadband access spreads across a country. Using data generated between 2001 and 2011, the report finds that the adoption of national broadband plans is associated with an average increase in fixed broadband penetration of 2.5 percent, and a 7.4 percent increase in mobile broadband penetration.

Far from this being just another statistic, these findings are highly relevant as the digital empowerment through broadband connectivity is a known driver of both social and economic development of nations.

Essentially putting the world at their fingertips, the expansion of broadband technology increasingly allows people to benefit from a wide range of resources and services regardless of their geographical location or financial background – or, in other words, it serves to bridge the digital divide.

Courtesy of broadband technology, today’s students have access to a vast array of online learning tools at little or no cost, benefiting all demographics. It does not matter if you live in a rural area in Mexico, along the U.S.-Mexico border, or a condo in Phoenix, you can research the online catalogue of the Louvre, or browse the Library of Congress from anywhere in the world, and at any time of the day.  In a nutshell, broadband acts as an equalizer in the education structure of the 21st century.

In the sphere of health care, broadband bridges the disparities between urban and rural care.  Telemedicine facilitates affordable access to quality medical services, as well as health care information and innovation in areas where primary care physicians and specialists are scarce.  Remote consultations and patient monitoring, patient-to-patient online networks, as well as the online storage, retrieval and transfer of patient information saves time and help reduce the cost of quality medicinal care.

The equalizing quality of broadband also extends into the sphere of business and the economy. With both large and small businesses now relying on the Internet for their day-to-day operations, enhancements in the broadband infrastructure accelerate transactions and can thus help attract customers and improve efficiency at the same time. While outmigration of particularly young jobseekers to metropolitan areas is endemic to many rural areas, the availability of broadband can help small communities to reconstitute themselves.  With massive private sector investments in research and development, the broadband industry is becoming an economic force and job creator in its own right.

On a macro-level, South Korea’s economic boom, in the wake of its information infrastructure initiative from the mid-1990s - which saw a more than doubling of Korea’s per capita income in the following decade, underscores the positive correlation between broadband and GDP growth. However, the body of evidence demonstrating the positive impact of broadband access – along with national broadband plans as a means for delivery - is mounting.  A 2010 World Bank study showed that a 10-percentage point increase in broadband penetration levels for low and middle-income countries accounts for a 1.4-percentage point increase in GDP growth.

In today’s global digital economy, any nation that wants to prosper and thrive will have to focus on expanding broadband access. Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, has aptly put it: “Broadband is economic oxygen.”  And, as the latest ITU research has shown, a national plan is the most efficient vessel to deliver this oxygen to the right places.

Lopez is a former mayor of Nogales, Arizona, former executive director of the Arizona-Mexico Commission and policy adviser on Mexico and Latin America for former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D).