Ministerial Roundtable – “Boosting infrastructure: rethinking the role of government in digital transformation” – Part 1

Digital World 2021 Highlights October

Opening the first of two ministerial sessions focused on the need to drive investment in digital infrastructure and the role that governments can play in stimulating investment to accelerate digital transformation, moderator Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, reminded participants that, “This event comes at a time when digital networks and services have never been so vital to our welfare and the well-being of individuals, communities and nations.”

Digital is the new normal. The proliferation of digital platforms and services, and our reliance upon them, will only intensify in the years ahead. Universal connectivity must be every nation’s new development benchmark. Yet upgrading aging networks and rolling out new infrastructure will require a huge level of investment, at a time when the fallout from the pandemic is already placing enormous pressure on the public purse.

“The cost of connecting the unconnected by 2030 on the infrastructure side alone will be around USD 428 billion,” she said. “This is a burden that cannot be borne by governments alone or operators alone: we need broad collaboration between industry, governments, banks, development financing institutions, and international organizations.”

She called on panellists to share their experiences and ideas in funding infrastructure, from innovative blended financing models to harmonized technology neutral regulation, and in the digital transformation of government itself.

Favourable investment climates

Digital technology will be key to the implementation of Bangladesh’s move to the 4th industrial revolution and 5G will provide the backbone, explained Mustafa Jabbar, Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology, Bangladesh. Having the infrastructure in place to support this effort is vital, and to achieve this, government and private sectors must all cooperate, each playing their own important role.

For Jabbar, the private sector, and the population themselves are “one of the keys” for the development of infrastructure and digitalisation. The role of government is also vital “for creating laws and guidelines, and preparing the environment for the development not only of the infrastructure, but also of the technologies,” he explained. The whole of government needs to understand the importance of the 4th industrial revolution and technologies such as 5G.

Creating the right environment for investment is also a priority. If “a favourable investment climate is not created, it is not possible for the private sector to create the environment of the future,” he added. Bangladesh has taken many steps to digitalize, as during the pandemic so much in terms of business, education, ecommerce and private lives moved online. The country will launch 5G this year, with plans to expand in 2022 and focus on industrial bands and coverage in cities. The minister thanked ITU for helping his country understand the importance of 5G technology and stated: “I declare Bangladesh to be Digital Bangladesh.”

National broadband policies

Telecommunications were first included in Bhutan’s modern economic development plan in 1963, with major subsequent milestones including the launch of mobile services in 2003 and market liberalization, which helped increase services and decrease tariffs, explained Karma Donnen Wangdi, Minister of Information and Communications, Bhutan. The government is now deploying a multi-pronged initiative focusing on national broadband policy, national fibre optic infrastructure leased to operators at no cost, the establishment of universal service, government networks, encouraging multistakeholder engagement and an exemption of sales tax on ICT equipment and machinery to boost connectivity.

A new information and media regulatory body was deployed in 2007.  Nevertheless, challenges to connectivity still remain, including deploying fixed broadband in rural areas, and the country is exploring the use of satellite connectivity. Echoing the view of other ministers, he spoke of how the pandemic had spotlighted the importance of connectivity to keep business and society running: “Connectivity is the foundational element of the SDGs and we will emerge stronger from the pandemic.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, explained Roberto Sanchez, Secretario de Estado de Telecomunicaciones e Infraestructuras Digitales, Spain, “Digital technologies were the only way for working, studying and keeping relationships going.” Yet, not everyone had equal access, so the challenge was to accelerate development. Spain now stands fifth in European broadband development terms, with 90% access to 30Mbps, and 5G deployed in major cities. Going forward, the long term strategy – which targets full broadband connectivity by 2025 -will be technology neutral, with a focus on infrastructure sharing, digital skills, e-government, digital rights and, crucially, a “human centric strategy, putting the person in the core of the digital transformation.”

The pandemic enabled the government of Mongolia to re-evaluate, assess its infrastructure and rethink the role of government, according to Bolor-Erdene Battsengel, Chairwoman, Communications and Information Technology Authority, Mongolia.

The resultant e-Mongolia platform was launched with the aim of digitalizing services, and integrating key government services such as ordering passports or registering a company. It also includes “2.0” – an AI-based platform enabling the government to offer citizens personalized and customer services based on what they need. Mongolia hopes to work with ITU member countries and international organizations to ensure inclusiveness and share the experience

5G and beyond

Thailand gives high priority to developing its infrastructure including broadband, submarine and 5G. Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn, Minister of Digital Economy and Society, Thailand, outlined a number of actions to support this, which have helped Thailand increase internet penetration to over 70%. These include the “village internet,” a flagship digital infrastructure project, plus an open access infrastructure sharing model, allowing any telecom operators to offer last mile services at affordable prices and reducing redundant infrastructure.

5G will be a priority- a “key driver to the information society” going forward, with the country looking to boost the application of 5G technology for industry and other sectors. The correct regulatory environment will be essential, with focus on digital laws in areas such as cybersecurity. He stressed the need for multilateral cooperation in digital development, especially in developing countries, telling panellists. “Thailand has a strong determination to encourage cooperation among ITU Members.”

Digital technology is as “indispensable as social infrastructure in the new era, ” Yuji Sasaki, Vice Minister for Policy Coordination International Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan, told panelists, so it is critical it is used safely, securely and reliably to ensure no one is left behind.

Japan’s digitalization strategies set targets for infrastructure development, including the promotion of optical networks for 4G and 5G, coverage of underdeveloped and remote areas, and a focus on digital skills and literacy, helped by digital support staff. Going forward, new optical fibre and terrestrial networks are planned, as well as new strategies exploring technologies such as HAPS (high-altitude platform systems) or OpenRAN. The government is building research and testbeds into technologies beyond 5G, he explained, including the establishment of international standards, where ITU has a major role to play. He also extended an offer to panelists to provide help in introducing new technologies.

The leading role of government

For Phan Tam, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications for event co-host Viet Nam, COVID-19 has hastened the process of digital transformation. The theme of the event, “Building the digital world. Together,” is very relevant and “establishes a new mission for ITU and the global ICT community,” he explained.

Whereas the focus previously was on connecting people, it has now moved to enabling access anytime from anywhere to anyone, including machine to machine, with innovations such as cloud, IoT, AI or 5G offering huge transformative potential to the ecosystem. Keen attention must also be paid to the development of digital platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Airbnb, he continued. Digital infrastructure and platforms are the foundation of the digital world.

Access must be meaningful and go “hand in hand with the devices skills for all.” Viet Nam’s digital transformation programme addresses these issues through measures such as providing smartphones to all citizens and online courses for digital literacy, with a focus on re-skilling and upskilling.

Governments need to play a leading role, promoting transformation in all economic and social activities, including education and healthcare. Viet Nam has recently issued a new e-government strategy, which will be followed by a strategy for digital economy, society and infrastructure by the end of the year.  Viet Nam supports ITU, is willing to share its digital experiences and will continue to support ITU for a safe digital world. “May collaboration between ITU members grow ever closer and more effective, he concluded.

The role of the mobile industry

Bringing a vendor perspective to the roundtable, Ziyang Xu, Chief Executive Officer, ZTE Corporation, explained that the pandemic had generated huge opportunity. “ICT services have become a key part of the infrastructure, like water or electricity,” he explained. Key elements underpinning the digital transformation will be a “reliable and future proof supply chain,” the need to address the current imbalance in broadband rollout and, crucially, the need to work closely and transparently with regional and international organizations, accelerating the whole world forward.

Mobile operators played a key role in the pandemic response by providing essential connectivity, and now practical ways are needed to “deliver a robust and resilient infrastructure,” according to John Giusti, Chief Regulatory Officer, GSMA. This must be open to all- including the many unconnected who live in areas which have coverage but do not use it. This “usage gap” is down to lack of skills, literacy and affordability.

Although the coverage gap has lessened- from 1.8billion to 450million over the last six years, new business models are still needed to reach the unreached. Private sector investment must be supported by policy from governments. He encouraged governments to “ensure that their policies are aligned to their future digital ambitions. Together we can unlock the full power of connectivity so industry and society can thrive.”

For Yuhong Huang, Secretary-General, GTI & Deputy General Manager, China Mobile Research Institute, China GTI, the mobile industry has a key role to play in digital transformation, but challenges such as high spectrum cost, high investment cost in 5G deployment, speed of development across different countries and difference in sites across rural and urban areas still remain.

Clear policy is needed to address these. In China, for example, the government supports spectrum policy through measures such as spectrum research strategies, a continuous allocation of spectrum to operators, ensuring sufficient spectrum resource for commercial 5G applications and a phased approach, saving cost burden for spectrum fees.

Citing a recent white paper which studied a number of different countries, Huang took the opportunity to share a number of pertinent suggestions for governments to consider for 5G commercial deployment. These included providing more spectrum to operators at reasonable prices – potentially in mid-band – a lowering of taxes to stimulate investment, implementation of holistic policies to encourage innovation and collaboration and encourage investment, and facilitation of e-access and infrastructure in public buildings and streets, such as in bus stops, to lessen the burden of 5G deployment. “We hope to work with all of you for a sustainable 5G,” she concluded.

Summing up

The challenge is the development of human resources and digital skills of the people, highlighted the Bangladesh’s Minister Jabbar. Internet connectivity may be provided across huge areas, but only becomes meaningful when education, businesses and government are digitalized to deliver relevant services at the doorstop. The major challenge is not technology, but equipping people with digital skills.

For Japan, formulating a strategic plan, cooperating with local governments and providing government support through initiatives such as cyber cities or tax breaks are the priorities.

Policy is the most important single issue, agreed ZTE’s Xu. It is the foundation of investment: the right policy will attract investment.

Infrastructure sharing, long-term government strategy, public private partnerships and consensus, and resolving the conflict between national revenues and digital policies in areas such as spectrum are key to accelerating the deployment of digital technologies.

“Digital transformation is important for the whole of society and needs the cooperation of the whole ecosystem. Government plays a key role in setting direction, policy, support and coordination,” said GTI’s Huang.

Moderator Bogdan-Martin highlighted some of the core elements of governments’ roles in digital transformation, from delivering “meaningful” connectivity, to the need to make the digital transformation inclusive, people-centred, focus on digital skills and literacy, involve the “whole of government,” overcoming challenge and helping drive down costs. Cooperation will be key.  “We need to work together, we need to work hand in hand to achieve a shared digital future for all.” She concluded.

 

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