Through the terrible experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has learnt first-hand just how indispensable digital technologies are for the functioning of our economies, societies and individual lives. It has also laid bare the stark realities of the digital divide, both between and within developed and developing economies. But the message from the first of the Ministerial Roundtables at ITU Virtual Digital World 2020 is clear – the great challenge of global crisis offers great opportunities for the ICT community to come together and accelerate digital transformation on an unprecedented scale.
In the words of ITU Deputy Secretary-General and session moderator Malcolm Johnson, “Never before has so much reliance been placed on ICTs, and never before have they been so much appreciated.” Digital technologies are a key part of building back better for a safer, more connected and more sustainable world for all – with collaboration and cooperation between governments, private sector companies, universities, regional and international organizations critical to leveraging the full power of ICTs, connecting the 3.6 billion unconnected and accelerating economic and social recovery.
Welcoming the distinguished panel of high-level guests, Nguyen Manh Hung, Minister of Information and Communications of Vietnam, highlighted how “ICTs have proved vital in helping us to adapt and respond to the challenges of living, working and learning remotely, becoming essential to the recovery of our economy and social activities.” Digital transformation in Vietnam has been accelerated by a new national programme to create a more innovative, resilient and sustainable economy, focusing on institutional reform, cybersecurity and digital platforms. “Moving from the real world to the virtual one is one of the biggest challenges of mankind, and there is a long way to go. But we will go along with ITU and its member states in building the digital world, we will go together as we want to go far.”
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao stressed the importance of cooperation between ICTs and other businesses in accelerating ICT development, based on the four principles of infrastructure, investment, innovation and inclusiveness. He urged national government authorities to break down silos and coordinate their approach to digitization: “We simply cannot continue to do business as before. Let us seize this opportunity to accelerate progress towards connecting all of humanity. Let us work across borders and sectors to build back better together.”
Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam Vu Duc Dam stressed the importance of international collaborative efforts such as today’s virtual meeting: “I believe that the Roundtables will significantly contribute to global victory over the pandemic, and technological knowledge, particularly Information Technology, will be utilized for a better world.”
Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, Minister of Communication, Science and Technology, Maldives, echoed the importance of ICTs in facilitating the response to the pandemic, providing information, social and economic activities to citizens throughout the island country even as usages levels doubled. Connectivity was “the most effective tool in keeping people virtually together and physically distant.” Ensuring quality coverage and affordable digital services will be critical to continued recovery, including addressing the significant costs of international connectivity and diversifying an economy largely dependent on tourism, one of the industry sectors most damaged by the global crisis.
In Cambodia, the government strategy for digital infrastructure development, technology adoption and capacity building has been accelerated by the increasing reliance on ICTs for people to stay connected, informed, working, studying and doing business. Puthyvuth Sok, Secretary of State, Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, Cambodia, spoke of the need to introduce a conducive business environment and strengthen financial stability through diversification and innovation. Access and affordability are key, and can only be achieved by attracting investment in digital literacy, 5G and infrastructure. “We are committed to making sure digital technology is accessible and affordable to all to leverage recovery and speed up the economy. Collaboration with international partners is critical in providing technology for all,” he said.
Isa Ali Ibrahim, Minister of Communications & Digital Economy, Nigeria, raised a recurring theme throughout the discussions: how the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of digital transformation progammes and national strategies planned and in place, but perhaps yet to bear fruit. Broadband penetration in Nigeria has increased by ten percent in one year to date, with the country well on track to meet its target of 90% penetration by 2025; and digital technology has sustained government services and operations throughout the crisis with such success that “virtual engagement in federal government activities is now institutionalized”, with increased efficiency and savings in cost and time.
For Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, South Africa, COVID-19 has meant everyone, everywhere embracing technology and learning new ways of doing things – such as drones delivering medicines where ambulances could no longer go. The pandemic threw the inequalities of the digital divide into sharp focus, with remote and rural areas facing a real threat to life through lack of connectivity and information, whilst those lucky enough to be equipped with smart devices and broadband have been well positioned to adapt to remote working and schooling. The effect of the pandemic has fast-tracked digital technologies in every government service, but human capital development remains at the heart of economic and social development. Connecting everyone equally cannot be done by any nation alone, she said, urging international collaboration as, “it is time for integration. The time for silo operations is gone. Let us build the digital world as the new world.”
Collaboration is critical for Syria, too. Iyad Al Khatib, Minister of Communication and Technology, Syria, spoke of the need to “unify our efforts under the umbrella of ITU to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and find innovative solutions.” The use of digital technology in health, education and business has been critical, emphasizing the importance of rolling out high speed fixed and mobile broadband to enable quality voice, video and data services. He highlighted two future areas of particular importance: AI and machine learning in predicting, diagnosing and preventing diseases, and cybersecurity in protecting data, privacy and networks.
Wilfredo González Vidal, First Vice Minister of Communications, Cuba, joined the call for global unity and cooperation in addressing the new challenges of the crisis – and the old ones of digital inequality. Cuba is promoting the use of ICTs as a key pillar to boost the economy and improve quality of life for all its citizens, but, he continued, “We call on ITU to continue to support in ICTs so that we can continue to face the situation and mitigate with solutions.”
Speaking from Finland, Pilvi Torsti, State Secretary from the Ministry of Transport and Communication, agreed that digital technologies had a major role to play in facing and overcoming COVID-19. The Finnish government’s immediate response involved the creation of a working group on digitization to assess the effects of the process as an emergency response, propose measures to speed up recovery and develop legislation to be more favourable to digital societies and businesses post recovery. Digitization, the group noted, took root at scale amongst the population in the course of the pandemic, as daily lives turned online, elderly people learnt to video chat and social lives turned virtual. As in Nigeria, provisional measures have become more permanent as, “the framework to digitize in society was already there – the leap forward pushed changes in the mindset of the people.”
Mirella Liuzzi, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Economic Development of Italy, focused on the need to support micro, small and medium enterprises as the key to economic recovery, renewed production and technical advancement. “Making digital technology more affordable and accessible at national level will bridge the digital divide, allowing industrial progress and social inclusion,” she stated, highlighting how much of Italy’s population lives in small or rural villages where infrastructure and facilities for digital connectivity are critical to face the crisis, provide healthcare solutions and support economic recovery long term. “Implementing digital services is essential to overcome the difficulties of COVID and create conditions for a strong and lasting social economy,” she concluded.
For Isaias Barreto da Rosa, Chairman of the Board, ARME, Cape Verde, “the countries most successful in the fight against the pandemic are those who have relied on adoption of digital technologies and integration of those technologies into policy and healthcare.” But there is a downside to the dominance of digital technologies: the increased use of ICTs has exacerbated the digital divide and increased exposure to cyber attacks. “Our key priority now should be not just connectivity, but meaningful and affordable connectivity for all at this critical time.”
The government of Jordan monitored network usage continuously to support increase in demand as work, education, business, entertainment and social activities moved online en masse. Resiliency was key, explained Dr. Ghazi Al-Jobor, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners and CEO of Jordan’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, with measures such as temporary spectrum allocation and licencing changes ensuring network capabilities even as data traffic increased by over 30%. The boom in e-learning and e-commerce that has resulted may lead to those measures becoming permanent, he said, as people recognise the importance of digital technologies: “Next to medical services, I believe ICT has been the greatest help to our country in easing the burden (of the pandemic) and achieving social distancing” – and in growing the economy post-pandemic.
Mongolia’s quick response and effective management of the COVID-19 crisis has proved highly successful, with very low cases of infection and no community transmission at all. Digital technologies were hugely important in bringing this about, stressed Battsengel Bolor-Erdene, Chairwoman, Communications and Information Technology Authority, Mongolia: “COVID-19 is the first pandemic in human history where knowledge has been used on a massive scale to keep people safe, connected and informed at all times.” Mongolia will continue to roll out mobile and fixed infrastructure, narrowing the divide between urban centres and rural, remote areas, and supporting the private sector through credit and tax initiatives. It has also moved 181 of its high-demand government services online in the first stage of a five-year plan to enable citizens to access all documents, paperwork and applications from any device anywhere in the country – efficient, timely and socially-distanced.
“It is imperative that we work together as an international community to ensure all people are connected and respected in the digital age,“ said Keng Thai Leong, Director-General (International Affairs), Infocomm Media Development Authority, Singapore. The pandemic has severely affected lives, economies, global trade supplies and societies but has also brought digital technology into the global spotlight. Technology has been critical to tackling the virus through public health information campaigns and trace and track apps throughout the world, but has also been the source of much mis- and disinformation, with potentially damaging implications for trust between governments, industry and citizens. For Leong, as for Italy’s Liuzzi, fostering the growth of tech SMEs is the key to post-COVID recovery, transforming economies and deepening digital abilities.
Sunil Bharti Mittal, Founder & Chairman, Bharti Enterprises, succinctly summed up one of the session’s key themes: “I am sure we all agree that we would not be able to imagine a world without connectivity during this vital time.” Healthcare and telecoms have emerged as the critical industries worldwide – and the digital ecosystem will only get stronger in the future. “We in the industry will remain steadfast in ensuring the best technology at the most affordable rates to all citizens of the world,” he continued, but government and regulators must provide the right support in terms of taxation policies, spectrum allocation and rights of way if the industry is to deliver on its promise as the provider of what is now clearly seen as an essential service.
Despite the increase in cyber criminality that has accompanied the dramatic upswing in digital usage, Kaspersky CEO Eugene Kaspersky remains positive. As individuals, schools, businesses and industrial services have moved on line, cyber attacks have risen by 20% compared to pre-COVID times – and are focusing more and more on critical infrastructure in governments, industrial systems and the financial sector. Awareness of the potential for cybercrime is critical, but Kaspersky is optimistic that we will benefit from the current crisis in the long term: “We will survive and move to a new cyber world with the 4th Industrial Revolution and new cyber services. We are learning from this, how to work remotely and create new services, and the world in the future will be better.”
Echoing this positivity, Chris Wellise, Chief Sustainability Officer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, pointed out that, “The disruption of COVID-19 is accelerating the need for agility, adaptability and transformation, not just in terms of the workforce moving online, but in the use of AI and edge to cloud technologies for a more sustainable economic recovery.” Rapid digitalization presents an opportunity to transform resource-intensive sectors with increased efficiency, resilience and reduced resources, speeding up the transition to a low-carbon circular economy.
Marc Vancoppenolle, Global Head of Government Relations at Nokia, highlighted once again how digital technology has become indispensable, with network traffic still at unprecedented highs as people continue to work and study from home. Accelerating investment in broadband worldwide is essential to support that demand with meaningful connectivity, at the right speed and of the right quality for multiple use cases. “This is an opportunity to accelerate digital transformation, turning businesses into smart factories and future businesses with cloud, advanced analytics and 5G coming into play, “he said. But given the very different demands of new jobs and industries in the near future, “we need partnerships for skills as well as infrastructure” to prepare the workforce, and society as a whole.
The current pandemic has dramatically accelerated digital transformation with the potential for more sustainable and resilient economies and societies – so “let’s embrace that opportunity, and make it happen together.”
Appreciating the session’s wide-ranging and insightful discussions, moderator Malcom Johnson called for more knowledge-sharing, mutual support and collaboration to “move forward to a more sustainable and resilient future, taking forward the use of ICTs to improve lives everywhere and address recovery from COVID-19.”