Ministerial Roundtable 2: The role of digital technologies during and after the COVID 19 pandemic

Digital World 2020 Daily Highlights Day 2

Setting the scene for the second set of discussions on the role of digital technologies during and after the COVID-19 pandemic,  moderator Doreen Bogdan Martin, Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau, ITU, reminded delegates of the essential nature of broadband, explaining how, in a world polarized by growing inequalities, broadband was “emerging as a rich-world commodity; plentiful in a tiny handful of wealthy nations, scarce and costly in most of the world, and quite simply non-existent for a full half of all humanity.”

Yet it is the countries which could most benefit from the transformational power of broadband that are the least likely to have access. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has injected a new urgency into the drive for connectivity, how can we harness that unprecedented tide of political will to put digital at the centre of our global recovery, and build back better with broadband? She asked.

Opening the debates, H.E. Phan Tam, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information and Communications, Viet Nam, told delegates that “the pandemic has speeded up digital transformation in every area.” ICT has proven vital during the pandemic, helping countries adapt and respond to the many challenges posed. Now is the time to get our lives back to the new normal and focus on building the digital world together, he explained. “ITU has a bigger role to play, supporting the digital plans of its member states, and promoting global cooperation to build a digital world,” he told participants.

ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao spoke on the importance of cooperation between stakeholders. “The time for operating in silos is over, and the new digital world must be built on cooperation,” he said. COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation and caused a huge cultural change, opening up unprecedented opportunities, he explained.

Panelists from government, regulators and the ICT industry then shared views on these opportunities, the challenges they had faced, the acceleration of digital transformation and how the pandemic had underlined the vital importance of connectivity.

For Costa Rica, explained H.E. Paola Vega Castillo, Minister, Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Telecomunicaciones, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the essential role of connectivity and digital literacy. During the pandemic, a steering committee was convened, comprising network providers, regulators and governments, to cooperate in key areas such as ensuring networks were able to meet the growing demand from increased traffic, which has surged since the start of the pandemic, defining responses to changes and disseminating vital information. Work will continue on measures to increase digital literacy and boost connectivity, and also to enable students to continue studies online, she said.

Over the last 10 years, Fiji has embarked on major network upgrades, building telecentres, facilitating affordable smartphones and e-government and, fortuitously, as H.E. Mr. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji’s Attorney-General and Minister for Economy, Civil Service and Communications, Ministry of Communications put it “unwittingly adapting to the crisis long before we had heard of it.” A mere 10 years ago the consequences of a global pandemic would have been more serious, he explained. The pandemic has now accelerated the adoption of digital technology and the country has been able to build on these foundations and use digital technology to navigate the crisis, employing tools such as track and trace apps or m-payment to help promote a COVID safe economic recovery. Fiji’s digital transformation will continue, as it is essential for long term economic security and prosperity, he explained.

Regulatory priorities have been transformed by the pandemic, as “having quality access now has never been as important,” according to Uruguay’s Mercedes Aramendia, President, Unidad Reguladora de Servicios de Comunicaciones (URSEC). We must help enable access to services, promote innovation and entrepreneurship, support consumers and citizens’ rights and teach the right digital skills, she explained. But this work must encompass the whole ecosystem – one single regulatory action is not enough and we must all work together, she concluded.

Despite the demands placed on networks by so many people staying at home during the pandemic, “the networks are coping in spite of challenges in voice and data traffic” Ulf Pehrsson, Vice President and Head of Government & Industry Relations, Ericsson told participants. “Connectivity now needs to be at the front and centre of policy concerns,” he explained. The technology to support global connectivity is now available – and, echoing the words of Fiji’s Sayed-Khaiyum, better able to cope with the pandemic than it would have been 10 years ago. International organizations such as ITU have a key role to play with activities and events such as WRC and the Broadband Commission. Governments and regulators must make spectrum available and promote investments for 5G, although the focus should be on 4G in emerging markets, he noted.

COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of digital transformation, according to H.E. Johnny Gerard Plate, Minister, General Secretariat of Ministry of Communication and Informatics, Indonesia, and the country plans to capitalize on this momentum by rolling out last mile infrastructure, deploying 4G and satellite access to reach full coverage of public access points. Key priorities will be filling the digital skills gap, focussing on data privacy regulation to create an environment for mutually beneficial cross border data flow. “We need to seize this opportunity to seek solutions to our problems,” explained Plate.

H.E. Thansamay Kommasith, Minister, Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, Lao PDR, shared valuable lessons learned from the pandemic, including how it had underlined the need for stable and affordable connectivity, and, crucially, for a cooperative, multi-stakeholder approach encompassing public and private sectors.  The country will “continue to work with stakeholders to harness ICT and digital technologies” he explained. So far, this cooperation has enabled progress in key areas such as accelerating mobile money usage as well as working with the postal sector to come up with innovative solutions to benefit citizens.

For Kuwait the pandemic has “contributed to the acceleration of infrastructure deployment,” according to H.E Salim Al-Ozianah, Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA). Indeed, many measures have been undertaken to leverage the potential of digital technologies, from supporting virtual government agencies to enabling crucial work in areas such as ensuring food security, network capacity, and increasing capacity of land and sea cables. Moving forward, as part of its acceleration of digitalisation, the country will be studying future applications of technology such as AI or IoT, explained Al-Ozianah.

Like many others across the globe “our daily routines shifted into the digital sphere,” said Amir Azeem Bajwa, Chairman, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Boosting telemedicine capacities, disseminating urgent information on the virus, enforcing lockdowns and tracking the disease were some immediate digital priorities brought about by the pandemic, and “hard lessons were learned” according to Azeem Badwa. But public and private sector players all rose to meet the challenges – including the impact on revenues- and supported the government’s work with services such as subsidised broadband, free access e-learning, free SMS or public service announcements. Moving forward, the focus will be on fiberisation, providing mobile broadband to the underserved. There will be gaps in the ecosystem, he told participants, but we are committed to closing the digital divide and ensuring emergency readiness of our networks in future.

The pandemic has “made apparent the urgency to bridge the digital divide,” according to Julie Welch, VP of Government Affairs APAC, Qualcomm. It has underscored the need for private sector and governments to enhance connectivity and broadband infrastructure. Boosting connectivity can help pave the road to recovery across all industries and nations, she explained. 5G technology will be a key driver for growth and innovation, bringing forth new business models, and yet-to-be imagined use cases. Using the platform provided by the Ministerial Roundtable, Welch called for policy makers to “release frequency spectrum so that it can be used by 5G. The full potential of 5G can only be realized with access to a range of frequency bands.”

In the Kyrgyz Republic, government, business and citizens all came together in the face of the pandemic. Operators stepped in to give special discounts for students and teachers, to help enable and encourage online learning. Moving forward, explained H.E. Altynbek Ismailov, Chairman, State Committee of Information Technologies and Communications, Kyrgyz Republic, the country will build on efforts of the government’s digital transformation strategy, including a focus on building digital resilience, deploying cloud based systems, particularly where traffic is high, strengthening cybersecurity and ensuring the population are equipped with the correct digital skills, such as in terms of distance learning provision, so that education will not be disrupted by any future pandemics.

Responding to the pandemic, Afghanistan moved to ensure its students in higher education were able to keep accessing the internet and learning programmes. The country also targeted telemedicine initiatives in remote areas, as well as boosting e-government capacity and helping its citizens take part in paperless society through digitalisation and removing bureaucracy. Moving forward, explained Ahmad Masood Latif Rai, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Policy and Program, Ministry of Information Technology, Communication and Science, the country has signed a number of agreements for trade with neighbouring countries including India, meaning it can work as a digital hub between Asia, Europe and other nations.

With the impact of COVID-19 felt across all sectors in Iraq, particularly health and education, government and regulators directed measures to support these sectors such as granting free hotspots in hospitals or helping facilitate online study, also in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Ali Naser AI-Khwildi, Chief Executive Officer, Communications and Media Commission (CMC), Iraq, explained how vital measures were also put into place to show citizens how to protect themselves and their families, such as an enquiries hotline or key information being given out over mobile networks. An MoU has been signed with UNESCO to provide free internet in schools in Iraq. Al-Khwildi asked ITU to encourage all states to fully cooperate with all stakeholders to “help provide accessible and affordable digital services, most importantly to remote areas to make sure that no one is left behind.”

According to Mabito Yoshida, Vice-minister for policy coordination, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan, the “challenge now is to use the pandemic in order to change society for the better.” For Japan, this has meant providing connectivity for all to ensure there are no gaps in key areas such as education or health, harnessing technology such as remote diagnostic apps to diagnose COVID-19. Yoshida used the occasion to remind delegates of the recent Connect2Recover initiative, launched by ITU with support from Japan and Saudi Arabia, which reinforces affordable and reliable connectivity in beneficiary countries as they adjust to the “new normal.”

Working together with its digital community and infrastructure, Moldova has focussed on supporting programmes in areas such as simplifying mobile payments, ID systems and e-commerce to meet users changing needs and behaviour in the face of the crisis, as well as responding, like others, to changing traffic and usage patterns, explained H.E. Vitalie Tarlev, State Secretary for ICT, Ministry of Economy and Infrastructure, Moldova. The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided the opportunity for policy makers to observe and plan their digital roadmap in the future and prepare the correct legislation- and has spurred the tracking of at least three new sets of digital legislation through parliament, to help the country return to the new normal, he explained.

Once the pandemic struck, according to Roberto Sanchez, Spain’s Secretary of State of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructures, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, the focus shifted toward keeping networks in operation, with measures deployed  to ensure this including agreements with operators to help people stay connected or reinforced customer service channels to respond to incidents. One key pandemic-driven element noted by Sanchez – and shared by a number of different countries and operators- was the increase in traffic levels and pattern in this traffic. Moving forward, “every crisis brings with it an opportunity” explained Sanchez. To seize this opportunity, the country’s digital agenda now includes finalising fibre to the home rollout, fostering 5G, strengthening digital competencies in schools and across the population, cybersecurity, and encouraging companies, including SMEs, to operate business digitally. It will also include using digital tools to mitigate sectors impacted by the pandemic, such as tourism or the automotive industry.

Digital is now a major priority, according to Frédéric Genta, Country Chief Digital Officer of the Principality of Monaco, who outlined the three point approach being deployed by the Principality to address this; accelerating infrastructure rollout, including 5G- which was launched a year ago; enabling every company wishing to become digital to do so, by equipping them with the right technology and support, including financial; and ensuring the population all possess the correct skillset to flourish in the digital economy. “We want every company to move to digital, and to make sure every person has the right opportunities to live in the digital world,” he explained.

Concluding the interventions, Bocar Ba, CEO, SAMENA Council, reminded participants of the outcomes of the high-level industry roundtable meeting ITU had recently held virtually. The private sector wishes to see more engaged government roles and policy on broadband deployment, he explained, including a review of current taxation models and regimes. These must include all players, he said, “those with and without their own infrastructure.” New approaches in funding need to be adopted. Our hyperconnected world needs a technology neutral culture, utilizing cloud and hybrid connectivity solutions, building trust and incentivising partnerships, he reminded participants. Regulators should ensure a level playing field in key areas including infrastructure sharing, flexible, affordable spectrum and licensing fees. We should also leverage other utility networks for broadband and anticipate now putting together a framework for digital development, he concluded.

Wrapping up the session, moderator Doreen Bogdan-Martin drew on some of the key elements discussed by panelists, including how they have and will use the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate digital transformation, particularly in areas such as e-health and online learning. Panelists have provided great examples of their efforts in connecting the last mile, tackling disinformation, raising awareness, pioneering new uses for digital technology such as remote diagnostics or forging new cooperation including with the postal service, she noted. We must connect and collaborate to help recover, and to ensure no one is left behind.

Summing up, ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao told participants that, thanks to work in the last decade and continued good development of broadband and applications of new technology, people are now much more connected, even during COVID-19. We must continue this work, together with our partners, so that people across the world can benefit from ICT, and so that the SDGs are achieved, he concluded.

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