Ministerial Roundtable – “Boosting infrastructure: rethinking the role of government in digital transformation” – Part 2

Digital World 2021 Highlights October

What is digital transformation? asked ITU’s Mario Maniewicz, Director, Radiocommunication Bureau, in opening this session on how governments can boost digital infrastructure.  Some say it is a cultural change, others the fourth industrial revolution or the digitalization of products and services. It increases productivity and efficiency, automates operations and processes and makes businesses and governments more efficiently organized, he explained. Whatever concepts we adopt, the primary building blocks remain the same: data, connectivity and digital infrastructure.

Broadband is the “live wire of advanced economies today,” said Minette Libom li likeng, Minister, Ministère des Postes et Télécommunications, Cameroon. Although wireless technology has boosted connectivity in Africa, fixed broadband penetration rates still remain low, and innovative new business models, incorporating a mix of technologies, are needed to drive down access costs and boost uptake, she explained. Strong actions and leadership are needed by governments, who must create a favourable climate, enhance digital confidence and master cybersecurity tools. The economy needs digital technologies to innovate, she added. Policy and regulatory frameworks must integrate new business models, address external issues such as market barriers, and help promote awareness, digital skills and affordable service universally. Governments must invest in providing access to areas not “viable to private investors,” and forge public private partnerships including frameworks to target specific sectors of the population such as women or youth. “We must ensure the promise of digital transformation leaves no one behind,” she urged.

Whole-of- government, human-centric approach

Moving toward a digital government has necessitated a rethink, according to Vianna Maino, Minister, Ministra de Telecomunicaciones y de la Sociedad de la Información, Ecuador, in order to build trust among populations. “Moving to a digital government can help public institutions put themselves in the mindset of citizens,” she explained. In Ecuador, this has also meant working across government, linking trade and national development plans to harmonize long term goals, cross cutting the 2030 SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) agenda, with an emphasis on the UN SDG 9, Industry. Infrastructure development is an essential component in digital transformation, and new business models involving investment in,and shared use of towers, for example, have boosted this, particularly at a time when wireless broadband use increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In e-government terms, digital transformation will enable all citizens to have equal access to public services through the Internet, simplifying administrative processes- but must be accompanied by the right training and skills development. All of this is framed within the national development plan. Digital transformation must be promoted across the ecosystem, from governments, the private sector and other organizations, she explained. Crucially, citizens must also be brought into the policy making process, so that public institutions are able to understand and adapt to “the growing aspirations of society.”

Petr Ocko, Deputy Minister for Digitalization at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Czech Republic, also echoed the need to bring all stakeholders into the debate. A functional, reliable and fast digital infrastructure helps citizens and companies in all aspects of their life and must be high priority, he explained. A “human-centric approach” is needed to communicate the benefits, particularly of new technologies such as AI or 5G. He highlighted a number of key policy areas which would underpin the new 5G ecosystem, build resilience and strengthen coverage, including encouraging opening of standards platforms, diversifying of business models, and synergy with verticals including health and security to realise a new 5G vision.

The role of government is changing, and it should “cooperate with the whole of society to get the best possible results,” he added.

In Jordan, the government has also used a multi-stakeholder approach to formulate their roadmap for digital transformation, explained Ahmad Al Hanandeh, Minister, Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship. As a nation with many young skilled users, the government has been working to build resilient digital services, with technologies such as IoT or blockchain high on the transformational agenda. Jordan’s national digital strategy has moved away from seeing ICT as a unique sector to work instead together, cross-sectorally. To address challenges to connectivity, the government has worked together with operators, cooperating over areas such as tax, high electricity prices or the need to make 4G and 5G spectrum available, as well as encouraging entrepreneurship. Without doubt, the pandemic has accelerated the pace of transformation and now, in response, “The disruption from the pandemic must be managed by disruption in the ecosystem,” he explained.

In the Syrian Arab Republic, different roles within the digital transformation strategy are divided between different ministries to ensure success, with the whole of government participating, explained Iyad Al Khatib, Minister, Ministry of Communications and Technology. This strategy comprises a number of different programmes, projects and indicators- with broadband as its backbone, via fixed and mobile networks- in conjunction with the private sector. The role of government in supporting and incentivising digital transformation is essential, and cooperation between government and private sectors is very important, especially within developing countries.

The digital future we had begun planning for pre-pandemic is here, now, according to Hassel Larry Bacchus, Minister, Ministry of Digital Transformation, Trinidad and Tobago, it has arrived in haste and will not be for the short term. This has necessitated a swift transition to a world where e-commerce, remote working and education are now the norm. Broadband infrastructure is critical, especially for developing countries, in powering this world.

The role of government is to facilitate an enabling environment through policy and legislation, a role which continues to change. Governments must work together with key players, mitigating threats, incentivising collaboration and helping lessen restrictions on regulation to bring about meaningful change. Infrastructure must also be viewed from the perspective of the customer. Defining who does and does not have access is critical at national level, he explained, but we need to “understand the divides so we can provide the right access.” It is not just about creating access, but creating a digitally literate society which can use and benefit from the access, he explained.

Pillars driving transformation

Oman’s vision 2040, which focuses on different pillars including creative users, a competitive economy and a sustainable environment, backed by the responsible government agencies, is part of a push to substitute oil and gas dependency with a knowledge-based economy, explained Ali Bin Amur Bin Ali Al Shidhani, Undersecretary for Communications & Information Technology, Ministry of Transport, Communications & Information Technology, Oman. This has included a focus on infrastructure development including fibre optics and satellite, which has increased mobile penetration to 111% in the first quarter of 2021, as well as helping boost rural connectivity. Now looking to 5G, the country has showcased smart 5G-enabled services in its port operations. Digital skills, training and a number of services to digitalize government, including the establishment of a government data centre and intranet, as set down in the E-Oman strategy, are also part of the Omani government’s efforts to drive digital transformation and transform the country to a thriving digital economy.

Brazil’s upcoming 5G spectrum auction is set to attract new players, with four different harmonized bands and competitive bidding in national and regional blocs, including for new, enhanced services such as IoT, industry 4.0 or smart cities. The focus will be on coverage, according to Artur Coimbra, Secretary of Telecommunications, Ministry of Communications, Brazil, with opportunity to extend at least 4G services to those not already connected, expanding mobile services. Along with 5G, expansion is also planned in fibre connectivity and submarine cables. To achieve these goals “digital connectivity is a key enabler,” he explained.

Along with increasing broadband connectivity, the government aims to provide an enabling environment which encourages investment, with legislation on areas such as use of rights of way and antenna sites, as well as tax reductions on services such IoT, VSAT (very small aperture terminal) and m2m to help enhance this environment.

Supporting digital transformation in Africa

As elsewhere, Africa has also seen an acceleration in its digital agenda, in part fuelled by the pandemic, according to Lacina Koné, Director General, Smart Africa, Rwanda. Yet, this digital transformation agenda will not be completed until the levels of connectivity in urban areas are found in rural areas, where penetration rates are much lower. The connectivity “rules” that apply in urban areas cannot be applied rurally, owing to a number of factors including income, distance, lack of resources and support infrastructure, all exacerbated by COVID-19. Addressing this imbalance- according to Broadband Commission recommendations, to which Smart Africa contributed- should comprise measures such as broadening the base of contributions to infrastructure funding; earmarking ICT sector proceeds to support broadband initiatives; reforming the universal service fund with a focus on new infrastructure deployment; and the establishment of an international fund to support rollout, in coordination with the UN and financial institutions.

Industry perspectives

Providing a view from event co-host, Viet Nam, Huynh Quang Liem, President & CEO, VNPT, outlined the country’s progress in digital transformation. VNPT- with the support of government guidelines- has helped more villages get connected, reaching nearly 300 by the end of 2021, with more planned in 2022. 5G, he noted “is a gamechanger,” and here the company is carrying out trials, with the support of MIC, in many areas from spectrum licensing and network sharing to help to boost 5G, especially during the initial phases when 5G capex is concern and ARPU (average revenue per user) may be low. For VNPT “the role of the government is supporting Viet Man with its digital roadmap,” he explained.

For Melissa Schoeb, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Nokia, bridging the digital divide needs cooperation. It should address key priorities including high quality infrastructure, which can also enable new 5G opportunities such as e-agriculture or remote schooling, and understanding and addressing the limits and challenges to user adoption. The “usage gap” includes factors such as affordability or lack of skills, age or gender dimensions which could hamper use of digital technologies even where connectivity is available. Nokia has a number of global initiatives to tackle these priorities, from helping female hires and STEM education in Saudi Arabia to providing on the job AI-based training in South Africa.

As well as supporting with policies, governments must address demand side obstacles. If industry and government cooperate fully “we could reach far more people and continue to advance society as a whole,” she concluded.

Moderator Maniewicz wrapped up the session by highlighting key elements from the discussions, including how all stakeholders can contribute to the creation of an enabling environment and how a mix of technologies can help drive down costs of connectivity. Digital transformation is often led by telecoms ministries, he reminded panellists, but national development plans should leverage synergies with different sectors. We need to address the digital divide and take human centric approaches. “The promise of digital transformation should leave no one behind,” he concluded.

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