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Why effective disaster management needs enabling policy environments: Lessons from COVID-19

By Abdulkarim Oloyede:

Among the many lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that the world’s telecommunication networks and digital infrastructure must be better prepared for disasters of all kinds. Collectively, we need to ensure that drills are carried out and rapid response measures are ready, since future disasters – including pandemics – can occur anytime, anywhere, and with little to no warning.

The good news is, many negative consequences of disasters can be diminished if robust resilience networks and disaster management tools are in place well ahead of time. This was the key lesson of a recent ITU-D public webinar on The Enabling Policy Environment for Effective Disaster Management including for COVID-19 Response, chaired by Ahmad Reza Sharafat, Chairman of ITU-D Study Group 2.

During the session, expert panelists discussed the importance of implementing measures and polices that would ensure the continued functioning of communication networks during disasters, such as declaring telecommunication networks as essential services or performing organised drills. The two-part webinar, moderated by Joseph Burton, Co-Rapporteur for Question 5/2, and Abdulkarim Oloyede, Vice-Rapporteur for Question 5/2, also featured examples of policies for preparedness as well as different responses observed around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pre-emptive partnerships and “blue-sky” planning are key

Juan Roldan of Luxon Consulting Group initiated the presentations by discussing the challenges that come with developing a national emergency telecommunication plan (NETP). An effective NETP accounts for multiple hazards, uses multiple technologies, contains multiple phases and is supported by multiple stakeholders, he said.  Mr. Roldan also emphasized the need for political will and support for an NETP, highlighting that governments must clearly identify which specific department or agency is responsible for emergency telecommunications.

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Continuing on the theme of cross-sectoral collaboration, Chris Anderson of CenturyLink Global Network advocated for public-private partnerships, declaring them as “necessary for effective disaster management.” Such a partnership should always be assembled during the “blue sky scenario,” meaning before disaster has actually struck, since it is much harder to bring the necessary people together during a crisis, he cautioned.

Concluding the first session of the two-part webinar, Paul Margie of Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) explained that while disaster management is never one-size-fits-all, commonalities can be observed in the countries where TSF works. These include training beforehand, formally recognizing ICTs as critical infrastructure, publicly identifying points of contact for ICT response, developing procedures so experts can enter quickly, and adopting mechanisms within the telecom regulator to speed decision-making, he said, highlighting how a “Special Temporary Authority” can enable rapid changes to be made when they are most needed.

COVID-19 responses from around the globe

The second segment of the webinar focused on COVID-19 responses that have been observed in different countries worldwide. ITU Programme Officer Maritza Delgado explained how tracking and analyzing these responses is one of the main objectives of REG4COVID, an ITU initiative designed to help communities stay connected during crises and to prepare medium- and long-term recovery measures. “The Global Network Resiliency Platform is just one example of what we have been doing,” she said. “Mr. Roldan also mentioned NETP plans, which are based on ITU guidelines released not too long ago.”

Kathryn O’Brien, Chief of Staff, International Bureau of the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) shared some guiding principles that her organization has been focusing on in the United States, the first being to set clear priorities. “If everything is a priority in a crisis, then nothing is a top priority,” she said. Ms. O’Brien also highlighted the importance of collaborating with the private sector. “Look to the market before jumping to mandates,” she added. “Industry was asked to step up and address the top priority: keeping Americans connected.” 

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Technology must go hand-in-hand with policy when it comes to effective disaster responses. “Information on people flow and density statistics [enables] better-informed decision-making,” affirmed Professor Ryosuke Shibasaki of the University of Tokyo, who presented Mobipack: open source analysis software that uses big data from mobile serial data to support COVID-19 responses by measuring movement. “The development of this software was originally triggered by ITU in 2015,” he noted. “It is now in operation in several African countries.”

Connecting from Lagos, Nigeria, MainOne CEO Funke Opeke shared the challenges faced by developing countries in coping with COVID-19. Here, the formal emergency planning framework includes road maintenance, but does not include telecoms, she said. Ms. Opeke noted that while policy frameworks for critical national infrastructure are emerging, implementation is lagging behind.

Traffic surges of up to 50 per cent during the period of COVID-19 created infrastructure challenges in India as well, pointed out Rahul Vatts, Chief Regulatory Officer at Bharti Airtel Limited. “We sorted out special permissions from the government and the regulator to enable our movement across critical sites. To address maintenance areas, we worked with OTT providers,” he noted, highlighting how network optimization was a continuous necessity and “a big learning for India.” He also stated that Indian government changed the dial tone and ringtone of all landlines – nearly 987 million working phones – to a special COVID-19 message asking subscribers to stay home, and practice social distancing.

Enabling policy today saves lives tomorrow

Access to a robust, resilient and secure ICT infrastructure worldwide is critical in a pandemic, and in any kind of disaster. If you want to have power, security, health and sanitation – essential services in a global emergency – you need ICTs, as one of the panellists rightly noted. And the ability of ICTs to perform the necessary function relies on an enabling policy environment, from granting temporary authority for additional spectrum use, as explained by Ms. O’Brien, to giving complimentary recharge margins for emergency calls, as Mr. Vatts highlighted.

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ITU Member States can and should strive to be among the countries that are disaster-ready not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of regulatory policy. One way to start is by taking opportunities like the one provided by ITU-D Study Groups to learn from each other’s experiences in implementing disaster response plans while skies are blue.

  • Abdulkarim Oloyede is the Vice-Rapporteur for Question 5/2, Federal Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, Nigeria.

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