Opening the third Ministerial Roundtable on the role of digital technologies during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, moderator Mario Maniewicz, Director, of the ITU Radicommunication Bureau, welcomed industry experts, regulators and ministers to explore how the global community can use the momentum of the pandemic to accelerate efforts to connect people, industries and homes everywhere.
Nguyen Manh Hung, Minister of Information and Communication, Viet Nam, highlighted a common theme of ITU Virtual Digital World, the first such high-level meeting to be held online by ITU: the global crisis is a big challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity – for the ICT industry, for digital transformation, and for global collaboration on an unprecedented scale.
Digital has become the new infrastructure, not just for communication, but for all our economic, social and personal activities. The technological capacity for digital transformation is already with us, and what is called for now is innovation and cooperation on a global scale. “To build the digital world is more about institutional reforms than technology,” he said, “We have to encourage people to try more – and to make a global effort.”
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao echoed this appeal to those leaders joining the virtual roundtable from around the world, focusing in particular on the need to foster broadband deployment, emerging technologies and tech entrepreneurs through the right government and regulatory support. “I am confident that what we have learned over the last three days will help us build a better future – a future where public and private sectors work together alongside the international community to advance ICT deployment so that no one is left behind”, he said.
Speaking from the perspective of a small island developing state, Deepak Balgobin, Minister, Ministry of Information Technology, Communication and Innovation, Mauritius, stressed just how reliant his country is on air, maritime and internet connectivity for all its economic activities. The ICT sector has proved resilient in the face of the global economic downturn, as governments, corporations, SMEs and individuals have increasingly come to depend on technology to continue operating despite the pandemic. This new way of business is here to stay, he said, and should be viewed as the new normal, supported by suitable investment, policies and skills development for all sectors. The pandemic has proved “an eye opener” in terms of the importance of accelerating existing digitization strategies. “It is clear today that digital transformation in full accordance with sustainability and the preservation of the environment is the way forward,” he added.
Administrations which had already developed and deployed digital strategies were at a huge advantage when the pandemic struck, agreed Mustafa Jabbar, Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology, Bangladesh, praising the vision of his country’s Prime Minister in this regard. “We could not have imagined facing the COVID situation if there was no digitization,” he said, pointing out that everything from financial services to healthcare, business and education moved online for government and citizens alike. But the crisis has also identified some of the key challenges in closing the digital divide, in particular making sure the phenomenal opportunities of digital technologies reach poorer rural communities as well as well-connected urban centres.
“The crisis caused by COVID-19 is a turning point for digital transformation,” said Nguyen Huy Dung, Director General, Authority of Information Technology Application, Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC), Vietnam. “The adoption of new technology requires people to change habits, which can be slow,” he continued, but the pandemic has forced us to very quickly change the way we work, learn and are entertained, “driving adoption faster than would otherwise have been the case and turning a big challenge into a big opportunity.” He outlined how Vietnam’s national digital transformation programme is working to develop a new digital normal for government, the economy and society, built on safe and sustainable online platforms for work, education, commerce and events.
Enhanced connectivity, increased financial inclusion, and increased access to trade and public services have dramatically transformed how we live and work, explained Mercy Wanjau, Acting Director General, Communications Authority of Kenya. “Digital technology is the great equalizer of our time,” she continued, but it is what technology enables that is the true game-changer – and never more so than in time of the pandemic. Frontline workers have been able to continue working, and citizens to access health services, online education and relevant information throughout the crisis. The regulatory body ensured the timely delivery of public service information through toll-free numbers and mandated platforms, as well as reducing the impact of cyber attacks and fake news accompanying the increase in online activity through awareness creation and compliance exercises. “The role played by digital technology throughout the pandemic cannot be overemphasized – and it will be at the core of a safe and orderly return to normal, allowing the smooth provision of services through collaboration and partnerships,” she concluded.
Just how important digital connectivity became during the crisis is evident in the numbers alone – with traffic rocketing by up to 60% across the networks, according to Alioune Ndiaye, CEO, Orange Middle East and Africa. Making the digital world available to all is more critical than ever in the face of the global economic downturn, with the collapse of tourism hitting many countries in Africa particularly hard. Energy, education and mobile banking are major potential areas of impact; and equipping young people with digital skills is essential to enable them to bypass the obstacles of lack of transport and infrastructure and contribute to economic and social growth. But, the operator stressed, “We need support from governments and regulators to maintain investment and growth for a brighter future.”
Gift Kallisto Machengete, Director General, POTRAZ, Zimbabwe, emphasized how digital technologies were not just critical for ensuring continuity in government, business, trade and education during the pandemic, but also as tool to combat the virus through information dissemination, debunking fake news, forecasting, planning and contact tracing. AI in particular will play an important role in predicting the spread and impact of future pandemics, and allowing for the planning and implementation of appropriate mitigation measures. Demand for high speed broadband will continue to increase after the crisis, given the convenience and ease of doing business it offers; trade, education and healthcare platforms popularized during the pandemic will remain relevant. To this end, Zimbabwe is rolling out centres in marginalized areas to ensure access for all to e-learning and e-commerce.
Access to all is an urgent priority, agreed Rupert Pearce, CEO, Inmarsat. The crisis has served to highlight how paramount broadband connectivity is to the well-being and advancement of society, and how satellite is at the forefront of providing seamless mobile broadband to those who need it most or are most difficult to reach – including the maritime and aviation industries. “Satellite operators have mission-critical services and infrastructure for the whole world,” he continued, so are well placed to weather the COVID storm, adapt to de-globalization and exploit the inherent long-term nature of investment activities in the satellite industry to continue innovating, “which bodes well for the future contribution of the industry to bridging the digital divide and providing broadband for all.”
Sattar Hashemi, Deputy Minister of ICT, Iran, joined earlier speakers in underscoring how much digital technologies have become an essential part of our daily lives – and how earlier investment in the sector has paid off in the difficult times of the pandemic, in particular in health, education and business. During the crisis, technology was used to detect the spread of the virus, provide health care and online schooling, and provide a sense of business as usual through socially-distanced working from home. Many such solutions and platforms have offered high performance, cost effectiveness and efficiency, and will be established in legal and structural frameworks after the pandemic. Above all, “this pandemic has shown us that our dependency on data gathering and analytics is more important than ever,” he stated.
For Ramin Guluzade, Minister of Transport, Communications and High Technologies of the Republic of Azerbaijan, innovative technology was a great help in minimizing the impact of COVID’s threat to humanity, bringing telecom and transport infrastructure and services in line with demand following the shift to online working. Special websites and mobile applications provided secure public health information, as well as notification and tracking services for those affected; and schools, companies and government agencies were able to connect and continue operations through video conferencing facilities. To avoid deepening the digital divide, “the new national digital strategy will focus on broadband infrastructure and capacity development, especially in rural areas,” announced the minister.
“As a regional leader in technology startups, we understand advanced communications infrastructure and how technology can act as a bridge between people and nations,” said Yoaz Hendel, Minister of Communications, Israel. COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our lives, with computers and smartphones becoming lifelines for citizens in lockdown needing to access crucial services such as medicine and education. “COVID has changed the world in many ways, including providing the understanding and will to move rapidly ahead in technological life,” he continued, announcing Israel’s determination to bring all its people the most advanced technologies – including three new 5G networks enabling cutting-edge solutions and fibre optics to create incentives for investment and employment outside of major urban areas. Advanced technologies provide employment, growth and opportunities for knowledge sharing, he said, to better prepare for potential challenges caused by pandemics and other disasters and to build a better world where we “make technology, not wars.”
Regulation has a significant part to play in accelerating digitization, claimed Konstantinos Masselos, President, Hellenic Telecommunications & Post Commission (EETT), Greece, highlighting how regulatory actions must keep one step ahead of market needs to maximize potential without losing sight of market realities. “The outbreak forced digitization at scale on society, so everything related to ICT took year-long leaps in a matter of months,” he said. The networks may have coped well in the short term, but we need to rethink what is actually good enough to allow for efficient working and studying from home in the longer term, from devices and video conferencing platforms to network capabilities. Pre-COVID regulatory frameworks may need to be adjusted to support network resilience and quality of service, especially given the demands of doing business online across countries and continents. “We need deregulation to make sure that pre-COVID regulations don’t hinder the potential of technology and communication in real time,” he continued. This is a paradigm shift for regulators, but we will advance on digitization through hard work, he concluded.
In Lithuania, one of Europe’s most connected countries, as elsewhere in the world many activities shifted immediately online during quarantine, explained Lina Rainiene, Deputy Director, Communications Regulatory Authority, Lithuania, with network traffic up by 70% and call minutes by 30% within the first few days. This was accompanied by a shift of throughput from major urban centres to remoter, rural areas where people worked from home, presenting major challenges for network operators in ensuring connectivity and accessibility for all – network resilience challenges which operators managed smoothly by increasing capacity. “Our role was to monitor the market and support consumers by monitoring service and service quality, respond with ad hoc measures such as the timely allocation of spectrum, and provide guidance to consumers on how to use services efficiently and stay safe online,” said the regulator. Regulators must prepare for future demand for connectivity, and ensure resilience in the face of any similar upcoming crises.
Jay Carney, Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs, Amazon, reminded participants of the unprecedented reliance on technology, data services and the cloud during the pandemic, with the elasticity of the cloud enabling service distribution in accordance with demand, saving resources and capacity. This degree of scalability, cost efficiency and agility will be critical to embedding digital transformation post-Covid to deliver efficient telehealth, mobile banking, remote working and e-education solutions at scale. But the private sector cannot do it alone: “Governments must catalyze development with policies supporting workforce development and change, championing cloud-first, emerging technologies and digital skilling to accelerate and harness the benefits of digital technology,” he said, looking to the panel to understand better how industry and government can work together.
Government policies and actions have been key in accelerating the digital agenda as a direct consequence of the pandemic. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, a range of measures were adopted to support increased demand and expand connectivity, explained Allyson West, Minister of Public Administration. These included assigning spectrum at no cost to mobile operators in exchange for service provision in rural areas, free internet access and devices to enable distance learning in underprivileged households, and free wifi in public health care facilities, libraries and community areas. Financial instruments included the use of universal service funds, removing taxes on mobile phones, computers and peripherals to reduce costs to the end user, and partnerships with ISPs to provide affordable connections. The government’s digital transformation agency has developed a digital ID solution allowing secure access to a wide range of public services, which are increasingly digitized. The aim is to counteract the double hit of the collapse in energy prices and the global pandemic by diversifying into digital sectors, fostering SME growth and reducing reliance on imported food.
Gloria Carvalho, Vice-minister, Ministry of the People’s Power for Science and Technology, and Marco Castillo, Director General of the Office for Integration and International Affairs, shared Venezuela’s experience in tackling COVID-19 with digital technologies. “Communications technology is a basic need to combat the pandemic,” said Castillo. Government programmes focused on using big data and public online platforms to track and counteract the spread of the virus – and this reliance on technology exposed once more the dangers of the digital divide. Closing that divide by ensuring access for all to technology and the benefits it brings is key for social inclusion and development.
Julio Munoz, Viceminister, Ministry of Telecommunications and the Information Society, Ecuador, outlined some of his government’s policies and actions taken to boost the positive impact of digital technologies in tackling the pandemic. These included an agreement to stop suspension of cellular service due to non-payment, free data for emergency and healthcare apps and platforms, a large-scale municipal programme to enable wifi hotspots in public locations such as squares and community centres, expanding connectivity in rural areas and working with Internet Service Providers to deploy in the poorest regions. Collaboration is key, both in terms of sharing best practice throughout Latin America, partnering with the private sector and working with other ministers to reduce taxation on digital devices or build a national strategy for e commerce to boost the digital economy. “We are working to reduce the cost of connectivity as we consider the internet a necessity, especially in times of pandemic where most of us are working from home,” he concluded.
In neighbouring Peru, telecommunication was declared an essential service at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, with voice and data traffic growing by more than 30% as the country entered lockdown, explained Rosa Nakagawa, Vice Minister of Communications, Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications. Supportive regulatory measures included simplifying the process of infrastructure deployment, allocating temporary spectrum without cost in exchange for internet service obligations in underserved regions, and infrastructure sharing to guarantee the provision of service. Spectrum efficiency is key to increasing connectivity and reducing the digital divide, as well as advancing fibre optic deployment in rural areas and providing access in rainforest zones where the rollout of traditional infrastructure is problematic. “The most important lesson from COVID-19 is that the best resource we can retain is public private partnerships working together,” she said, calling for ministries to provide clear legal frameworks to promote investment and infrastructure deployment from the private sector.
Establishing and sharing good practice is critical to stop the spread of the virus, according to Mario Fromow Rangel, Senior Commissioner, Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones, Mexico. Good pratice includes priortising strategic institutions in response to the pandemic to ensure connectivity for hospitals, healthcre centres, food centres and key infrastructure points such as ports, power plants and airports. A rational internet usage strategy enables monitoring of traffic use and guarantees the correct provision of services to all stakeholders. Given the importance of communications in faciliating the fight against COVID-19, he said, it is essential to “continue working with industry, academia and civil society to collaborate and foster efficient development.”
Mats Granryd, Director General, GSMA, underlined how mobile operators are unlocking the power of connectivity to let people, industry and society thrive, creating a new awareness of the potential for a digital enabled world. During the pandemic, mobile operator networks saw increases in traffic of between 20% and 100% – which operators were able to manage through a raft of measures such as increasing capacity and extending data caps. Mobile payments, digital health care, telemedicine and mobile education platforms all took on new importance during the crisis; and operators also provided aggregated data to inform mathematical modelling to predict patterns of contagion in countries as diverse as Spain and India. The mobile industry is aiming “to continue to invest in mobile networks to facilitate innovation and build the post-pandemic society”, with 5G networks the biggest spend – and growth driver – of the near future. Granryd called for favourable investment environments, including a reduction in sector-specific taxation, increased spectrum allocation and more public private partnerships, to support the industry’s commitment and power fintech, digital services and big data. “The mobile industry has the resources and ambition, and looks forward to working with you all in the new digital age,” he announced.
“As Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau, I am looking forward to working closely with all of you to build a more resilient and inclusive future,” said moderator Maniewicz.
Concluding the final ministerial roundtable of ITU Virtual Digital World 2020, Secretary-General Zhao congratulated all participants on the excellent exchange of views on the power of ICTs to tackle COVID-19, and urged ministers and industry leaders to continue to work together to move forward further, faster. He joined Minister Hung in welcoming all speakers and attendees to meet up again in person at the physical version of the event, ITU Digital World 2021, to be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in October 2020.