By Houlin Zhao – Secretary General, ITU
Among the new urgency is that emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and many more have the capacity to improve the lives of billions across the globe
Internet usage has kept growing over the last 15 years, to reach an unprecedented level of connectivity that is transforming almost every sector of the economy and accelerating social and economic progress.
I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Broadband Commission on the upcoming release of the 2020 State of Broadband Report – its Special 10th Anniversary Edition − and to draw your attention to one of the Commission’s advocacy targets: “Getting people online”.
Being online in the times of COVID-19 has made a big difference for those who have relied on information and communication technologies to work, study, care for others, and keep in touch with loved ones. The coronavirus pandemic shines a spotlight on the vital importance of digital technologies and services, but also on startling digital disparities.
I know we all long for a return to normalcy these days. But I ask you, how much longer can we accept as ‘normal’ that 3.6 billion people still have no connectivity at all? All these people have been deprived of the digital lifeline that has been instrumental in keeping economies and societies going during this crisis.
Can we accept as ‘normal’ that women’s Internet use in developing countries is falling behind? And can we accept as ‘normal’ that even as average prices are broadly continuing to fall, broadband services can still be too expensive for the poorest consumers?
Broadband development is facing many more challenges. Let me list a few for you: geographical imbalance; a lack of effective guidance on industry policies; slow network roll-out; traffic growth in traditional services not yielding additional revenue; future-oriented new services requiring the enhancement of network profitability, a reduction in operation and maintenance costs, and a shorter cycle of return on investment.
I highlighted these problems and challenges in a letter to ITU Members, the diplomatic community, and National Regulatory Authorities in January of this year.
We need to mobilize
We need to mobilize governments, operators, equipment manufacturers, investors, and vertical industries, including both large and small companies, to accelerate progress toward bridging the broadband divide effectively and rapidly. Only by bringing the broadband industry together will we be able to meet these challenges, and I hope you will join ITU in this endeavor!
Life will never be the same after the coronavirus crisis. Having a new investment strategy and policy for information and communication technology has now become more necessary than ever. And that is what I have emphasized to policy makers since the beginning of the crisis.
The coronavirus crisis is still raging, but it is already difficult to envisage circumstances in which the telecommunications and ICT sectors are not playing an even bigger role coming out of the crisis. I think we will see higher levels of demand, increased customer demand for higher broadband speeds, more urgent need for connectivity to keep people safe, as well as new innovative services and applications. The challenge before us is to meet these expectations and aspirations with more connectivity − but also with more safety, better digital skills, and improved affordability.
The key role of industry
The role of industry will be central to these efforts. I met with the G20 Ministers responsible for the digital economy recently, and I told them that our consultations with ICT industry players show that they have highly appreciated the support of public authorities during the crisis.
These industry players, including ITU’s own private-sector members, are willing to take on more challenges. However, they also expect and need more favorable investment environments.
As Secretary-General of ITU, I have made the promotion of investment in ICT infrastructure one of my priorities. The needs are tremendous. For example, consider that Africa alone would require an estimated $9 billion in investment to double the current ratio of broadband connectivity by 2021, and an estimated additional $100 billion to bring everybody online on the continent by 2030.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, video conferencing platforms and apps and other digital tools have come to the fore. With it, also came connection problems and a greater need for efficiency, safety, and security. The introduction of 5G and the increased deployment of broadband infrastructure will see the advent of new applications with more advanced technologies and innovative ideas.
‘The 4 Is’
Together with innovation and inclusiveness, infrastructure and investment form what I call the “4 Is”.
I am calling on governments, businesses, and others to come together under these “4 Is” and seize the opportunity presented by today’s crisis to accelerate broadband development.
Today’s unprecedented crisis calls for unprecedented cooperation. ITU members from government and industry have worked hand-in-hand for over a century and a half, using technology as a force for good. So when COVID-19 began to spread internationally, our members and partners lost no time devising our response.
ITU’s rapid response to COVID-19
ITU quickly launched the REG4COVID platform to help countries and their regulators share best practices during the pandemic. We also launched Emergency Communications Guidelines to help policy makers formulate effective telecom responses in the wake of emergencies and disasters.
ITU joined the Global Education Coalition led by UNESCO to ensure learning never stops for students and youth across the planet affected by school and university closures. We joined WHO, UNICEF, and global operators to deliver health messaging via mobile phones to billions still lacking an Internet connection.
At ITU, we take our commitment to health very seriously. That is why I joined the G20 Health Ministers a few weeks ago for their extraordinary meeting on COVID-19, to help boost digital health solutions. A close collaboration between health and ICT industries is more important than ever!
ITU was also instrumental in the adoption of the Broadband Commission’s Agenda for Action. We joined the World Bank, GSMA, and the World Economic Forum to take immediate actions on issues such as network resilience and access and affordability of digital services. Both initiatives help guide global private-public sector collaboration and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on economies and societies.
Building on key partnerships
Finally, we have built on existing partnerships, like the GIGA partnership that ITU, UNICEF, and others created to connect every school to the Internet, or our work with the International Labor Organization on digital skills for youth, starting with young people in Africa. In all these actions, providing reliable and trustworthy digital networks and services is of the utmost importance. ITU is committed to leveraging technology for development and no virus, no matter how powerful, will make us deviate from our objective.
ITU has enjoyed strong support from its Members. Our World Radiocommunication Conference 2019, successfully held in Egypt from 28 October to 22 November 2019, had a record number of participants. The outcomes of this conference will have a profound influence on ICT development worldwide for the next decade, including improving connectivity in underconnected areas.
While it was not possible for us to hold the ITU Council 2020 physically in Geneva in mid-June, we just organized a Virtual Consultation of ITU Councilors that addressed urgent and important issues. The agreed results of this unprecedented consultation are now under the process of approval by correspondence and show ITU’s leadership role during this unprecedented period.
A new urgency
Emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and many more have the capacity to improve the lives of billions across the globe.
The importance of universal broadband access to enable essential services and social cohesion must bring a new urgency to eradicating the digital divide and promoting digital inclusion worldwide. With 10 years left to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we need these technologies and ICTs in general now more than ever before.
As the virus is making in-roads in the developing world, let us commit ourselves to bringing broadband connectivity to everyone, everywhere. And let us ensure that the digital infrastructure, services, and applications that have proved fundamental in this crisis are beneficial to all so that we leave no one behind as we recover from the pandemic.