On 15 April, the UN and ITU launched a Joint Webinar Series to discuss digital cooperation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
The theme of the first dialogue focused on measures to assess the status of connectivity in different regions in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Almost 300 participants joined the virtual meeting from all corners of the world.
The aim of this series of five multi-stakeholder dialogues is to build a community to share actionable ideas, initiatives and solutions, with a view to accelerating discussions within the Expert Roundtables following-up on the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.
Speakers strongly agreed that the pandemic has shown the critical importance of digital technologies; many of those with fast broadband connections have been able to keep working, studying, and entertained, and to stay connected to family and friends. However, greater reliance on digital technology risks creating greater and deeper inequalities for the unconnected, as well as increasing the dangers of digital misuse.
Discussants noted that the COVID-19 crisis is causing network traffic levels to surge, changing internet usage patterns and even challenging our definition of ‘sufficient’ connectivity. With teleworking and home learning becoming the new normal for many, internet traffic is surging in residential areas in Rwanda, rather than the commercial areas normally prioritized by operators, according to H.E. Paula Ingabire, Minister of ICT and Innovation of Rwanda.
And while mobile connectivity is faster to roll out, it also offers lower transmission rates than fixed networks; the pandemic has shown how people with fixed internet access are at an advantage, noted Tiziana Bonapace, Director of ICT and Disaster Risk Reduction, UNESCAP.
“Crises drive change”, observed Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, who urged participants to seek out the opportunities that emerge from this crisis. Joakim Reiter, Group External Affairs Director of Vodafone, noted the accelerating digitization of healthcare, observing that we have seen more digital healthcare in the past six weeks than during the past twenty years and experienced 300% increase in phishing attack. However, while the crisis generates its own challenges, previous problems remain the same according to Carlos Lugo, Director of the Communications Regulation Commission of Colombia. The long-term priorities of Colombia remain the roadmap for connectivity, and the regulatory conditions for 5G deployment.
Public health information spread via digital means has also been hugely helpful and saved lives, the meeting heard. Different countries have adopted very different approaches to content moderation – ranging from ‘laissez faire’ to more proactive intervention. Challenges that the COVID-19 crisis may exacerbate include infrastructure security, data protection and the spreading of misinformation over the network.
COVID-19 is a wake-up call about the importance of getting – and keeping – the world connected, participants heard. The urgent need to bring more people online was further underlined by Vint Cerf, Senior Google executive and Internet pioneer, who stated that access to the internet and ICTs needs to be affordable, reliable, safe, accessible, useful and sustainable, in line with the SDGs.
The conversation continues in Webinar #2 “Connectivity Best Practices: What Works & What Does Not” on Wednesday 22 April, with further sessions scheduled through mid-May.
We invite everyone to join these dialogues on digital cooperation during this critical crisis and beyond. The discussions will also provide valuable inputs to the UN Secretary-General’s forthcoming Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, which will be launched in May.