Artificial Intelligence | Broadband/Network | Emerging Trends | Infrastructure | Policy/ Regulatory Reform | Smart Cities
July 22, 2020

How we can build a stronger digital economy, together

By Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General

*The following article is adapted from my remarks at today’s G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting. 

Let me begin by thanking His Excellency H.E. Eng. Abdullah Amer Al-Swaha for inviting me today to address the G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting. ITU is proud to be a knowledge partner of Saudi Arabia’s G20 Presidency.

My friends, these are difficult times. COVID-19 is perhaps one of the most daunting challenges that we will face in our lifetimes.

As in every crisis, there are also lessons that we, as leaders, can learn. Thanks to the wonderful ICT infrastructures we have developed, of which the G20 Ministers and the ICT community should all be proud, the global society has managed to continue their work and their lives in the recent difficult time.

ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting Saudi Arabia
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao addresses the G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting.

As more and more of our activities go online globally, broadband is fundamental to ensuring that the transition to this new normal is as seamless as possible. The ICT industry has so far proven very successful in ensuring that their infrastructure and services are up to the challenge of the significantly greater demands on the network capacity.

However, with 3.6 billion people still with no connectivity at all, the greatest digital challenge before us is to meet the needs and expectations of the unconnected.

Investing in ICT development

We need to encourage more investment in ICT, and more importantly we need to review our strategy and actions on ICT development.

For example, broadband development still faces a series of challenges. These include, amongst others, a lack of effective guidance on industry policies; slow network roll-out; future-oriented new services requiring the enhancement of network profitability, and the need to involve new stakeholders to roll out network infrastructure and attract investors.

Lack of connectivity is not just a developing country problem. During the COVID-19 crisis, we noted that the digital divide exists between cities and remote areas in some developed countries as well. So connectivity is a challenge that impacts all nations.

Universal connectivity by 2030

At the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Thematic Debate on the Impact of Rapid Technological Change on the Achievement of the SDGs – on 11 June, the UN Secretary–General, António Guterres, launched his “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” and in particular, called for achieving universal connectivity by 2030.

I recall that H.E. Eng. Abdullah and I had a discussion on the same topic of universal connectivity at the 2019 ITU Telecom World, after a public panel where I was asked this question about when I expect the world to be fully connected.

2030 is an ambitious target indeed, considering that the rate at which we are connecting people has slowed down significantly, according to ITU statistics.

However, 2030 should definitely be our aspirational target that we should all aim for. In this regard, let me say that Saudi Arabia’s initiative on Connecting Humanity by 2030 is a timely effort. If we all mobilize to work together, we could achieve this ambitious goal by 2030.

A recent ITU-led study has found that $428 billion is needed in investments to achieve universal, affordable broadband by 2030 in all countries. The results of this study, funded by Saudi Arabia, was also presented to the third DETF meeting.

Needed: a ‘whole-of-government’ approach

It is clear to me that mobilizing such levels of funding will require the contribution and collaboration of both public and private sources. I would also add that we could further exploit those ICT spare or additional existing capacities to improve the connectivity.

Let me therefore reiterate the need to approach ICT investments with a new whole-of-government ICT investment strategy.

A concern that I have consistently expressed as the Secretary-General of ITU has been that ICT investments are splintered and not well coordinated even within the same country.

While the telecom authorities facilitate significant investments in ICTs, working with operators and other private sector players, I see that various other ministries also do the same, investing in ICT infrastructure to support their own areas – in many cases working with the same entities.

However, this splintered and uncoordinated approach to investment causes duplication and results in significant inefficiencies – including unused ICT capacity and resources.

We can be much more effective if governments ensure a well-coordinated whole-of-government approach to ICT investment, which will benefit the country and industry as a whole.

Therefore, when I addressed you earlier on 30 April during the special COVID-19 DETF ministerial meeting, as well as your colleagues, Health Ministers, on 19 April, I emphasized the need for Health and ICT ministers to work closely together, as should the other sectors.  

RELATED: ITU’s COVID-19 response: Here’s what I told G20 Digital Economy Ministers today

Key guidance from G20 Digital Economy Ministers

Let me congratulate you all on the draft ministerial declaration which I have read very carefully.  It offers excellent guidance on several key areas impacting the digital economy.

I appreciate the efforts by Saudi Arabia to highlight AI in the five action areas G20 is promoting. I am pleased that there is recognition of the importance of universal, secure, and affordable connectivity, support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), bridging the gender gap, and various other key areas. The Policy Options to Support Digitalization of Business Models during COVID-19 will be an invaluable resource to all nations.

I once again congratulate the Saudi Presidency for its excellent leadership throughout the process, and wish all the countries fruitful deliberations.

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How we can build a stronger digital economy, together

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