By ITU News
The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on people, systems, economies, and governments around the world.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is no exception, and as this year’s G20 Chair works to manage the impact of the virus, it’s worth taking a look at how the rising regional power has deployed information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the fight against COVID-19.
Saudi Arabia has prioritized the rapid growth of its ICT sector as part of its Vision 2030 to diversify the nation’s economy.
As such, early planning, far-sighted regulation and targeted investment in the infrastructure required to power a modern digital economy have already paved the way for the country to deploy a range of digital technologies.
This focus on building a strong foundation for digital development allowed Saudi Arabia to act quickly to deploy ICTs to reduce the virus’s impact, keep vital communications links open, and continue to provide an improving quality of life for people in the Kingdom.
But how did they do that?
Bringing government agencies and the private sector together as well as pushing information out reliably and regularly have been pillars of the Saudi strategy to use ICTs to manage COVID-19.
How Saudi Arabia has deployed ICTs against COVID-19
Like many parts of the world, demand for digital services in Saudi Arabia in the time of COVID-19 have increased as never before.
To meet this demand, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) hustled to build strategic collaborations with many other government entities in order to enhance vital digital services to vital sectors by strengthening their communications infrastructure.
In the period between February and April 2020, the volume of digital services provided by government agencies showed an increase of 70% compared to the same period last year, according to government figures.
Here are a few highlights provided to ITU News to illustrate the efforts to use ICTs to distribute key information during the pandemic:
Data costs were waived for users of health app Sehha, e-learning platforms and the Tawakkalna app, which allowed users to apply for permits to move after curfew. CITC also assisted with the launch of Tabaud, a social distancing app that helps people know if they have come into contact with an individual infected by COVID-19. The CITC explained to ITU News that it has also ensured that all data has been collected in a secure, ethical and transparent manner and that information from health apps could be used to monitor and prevent the spread of the virus.
All of this generated a substantial surge in data usage. Between February and April 2020 alone mobile and fixed data usage in Saudi Arabia grew 34%, rising from 52,417 TB to 70,120 TB monthly, according to government figures.
New apps for new digital ecosystems
One of the most innovative and responsive actions by CITC in its efforts to make people’s lives easier during the pandemic has been to make available – instantly – over three dozen new delivery apps in just the past four months.
These apps are also essential for the growth of ecosystems among the service providers, delivery agents, and users with determining requirements and guidelines to protect everyone’s rights, health and safety.
Setting up these requirements acts as an accelerator to improve the experience and quality of service in the delivery app market. The number of Saudi delivery agents has increased by 500%, which has led to an increase in executed orders by more than 240%, according to government figures.
Saudi internet speeds and access have remained strong, due in large part to the earlier investments in digital infrastructure, and to CITC’s prompt response to further increase spectrum allocation. In March 2020, Saudi mobile service providers were temporarily licensed to use an additional 40 MHz in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands, a 50% increase in the spectrum holdings for service providers.
Building from strength
Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s youngest populations: 50 percent of its population are under 25 years old. It also has one of the most active online populations in the world.
The average person in Saudi Arabia consumes more than 920 MB per day, compared to a global average of 200 MB at the beginning of 2020, says the CITC. Nowadays, 96% of people inside the country use the internet, compared to just 2% in the year 2000, while 99% of the country’s area has internet access, according to the CITC.
To provide fast speeds for the data-hungry population, CITC has increased the frequency bands allocated to telecom operators by an 226%, from 340 MHz in 2017 to 1110 MHz in 2020. This makes it, according to the CITC, second only to Japan among the G20 countries in terms of the amount of radio spectrum awarded to operators in globally identified frequency bands for public mobile telecommunication services. This additional spectrum has considerably eased the burden on mobile networks and the expansion of 5G, which have experienced dramatic increases in demand during the COVID-19 era.
National Spectrum Strategy
In order to best manage the increased spectrum required for future ICT services, CITC has issued a National Spectrum Strategy, which aims to optimize national spectrum usage and efficiency by 2025.
The plan seeks to allocate a total of 4,660 MHz for commercial use, contribute over $133 million to the GDP annually and position Saudi Arabia among the world’s top countries for investment in radio systems by 2025.
These policies and sustained focus on rapid ICT development are helping propel Saudi Arabia towards becoming one of the world’s more advanced digital societies.
The Saudi model for ICT development was stress-tested by COVID-19 – the severity of which few could have imagined – and proved itself to be nimble and resilient.
To help share what it has learned and to assist countries worldwide, Saudi Arabia is working with ITU and other partners to launch an initiative that will aim to reinforce the digital infrastructure of beneficiary countries, and provide means of utilizing digital technologies such as telework, e-commerce, remote learning and telemedicine to support the COVID-19 recovery efforts and preparedness for the ‘new normal’ (and potential future pandemics), and, where it is still needed, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections while maintaining socio-economic activities.