Broadband/Network | ICT4SDG | Infrastructure | Policy/ Regulatory Reform | Regulation | SDG10
May 7, 2020

Here’s how we are seizing the moment to build a better digital future – for all

By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau

Digital platforms have been the hidden hero of the COVID-19 crisis.

Global networks are being taxed to the limit. Operators and platforms are reporting huge surges in traffic, as the world transitioned almost overnight to online working, schooling, shopping and socializing.

Some providers are reporting demand spikes as high as 800% – surge levels that would have surely quickly knocked out other kinds of infrastructure.

We understood that digital resources were going to be absolutely critical in this global health emergency, and we moved quickly to set up our REG4COVID platform to serve as a repository of emergency actions that the digital community around the world is taking to ensure the continued availability, accessibility and resilience of networks and resources.

The list of actions and initiatives is impressive – and it continues to grow.

Here are just some of the latest examples:

  • An emergency session of the UN Broadband Commission announced three-pillared Agenda for Action for governments and the digital community to support not just first-response efforts, but the rebuilding of the global economy, post-crisis, focusing on access, resilience and online safety.
  • The World Bank, GSMA, the World Economic Forum and ITU launched a 5-point Action Plan to leverage digital technologies and infrastructure to support citizens, governments and businesses; stressing the need for bandwidth, accessible connectivity, digital financial services, online trust and safety, and big data.
  • We also found ways to tap into the 2G market by partnering with WHO, UNICEF and global operators to deliver accurate and timely health messaging via mobiles to the estimated two billion people who still rely on a 2G connection.

With 1.5 billion children now out of school, we’re working to accelerate our efforts with UNICEF and governments to expand our GIGA partnership to connect every school, with the aim of also making schools into community hubs for the delivery of vital services.

Global digital cooperation

This crisis has underscored the urgent need for global digital cooperation.

We’ve launched a regular dialogue with UN partners and the tech community, as a follow-on to the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, in the context of COVID-19.

One important focus is on how to protect society’s most vulnerable people and communities, as well as the special needs of women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The crisis has also resulted in a huge surge in all kinds of online criminal activity, from attempts to defraud a panicked population, to online sale of counterfeit and even dangerous goods and medicines, to cyberattacks on hospitals, testing labs, and centres of health information.

Global operator Vodafone has reported a 300% increase in phishing attacks across its own networks. Bad actors everywhere are exploiting fear and uncertainty.

Cybesecurity: Now more important than ever

My own Cybersecurity team has set up an online repository of the very latest reports from authoritative sources like Interpol, Europol, UNODC and many others, to alert governments to the spiraling number of threats, and advise them on rapid and effective remedial action to protect networks, businesses, and users.

Of course, the risk to children is heightened with the many millions of children now online.

The global shift to online learning has meant many children have had to come online at a younger age than their parents may have foreseen. Many are also using the internet unsupervised because of their parents’ own constraints.

I do not accept as ‘normal’ a situation where every second person on the planet has to manage without this vital digital lifeline.

This risks exposing them to very darkest side of the net: child online sexual abuse. We have been working very actively on this issue, through the Broadband Commission Working Group on Child Online Safety, which reported late last year, and ITU’s revised Child Online Protection Guidelines, due for release in June.

Of course, the global lockdown has also meant that hundreds of millions of children have been simply cast adrift from formal education altogether, because they have no internet connection, or because their connectivity is too slow, or too expensive, to play a meaningful role as a learning platform.

Closing the digital divide

Let’s never forget that, right now, 3.6 billion people remain totally unconnected from the online world. And many of the billions that we currently count as ‘connected’ in reality labour with slow, infrequent and expensive connections via internet cafés, or via handheld devices, which are, and will remain, the only connectivity portal available to most people in developing countries.

If there’s one thing the unprecedented events of the past few months have dramatically illustrated, it is the vital, essential importance of connectivity.

We may never again benefit from the intense focus governments are now according digital networks and services.

As ITU’s Director of Telecommunication Development, I can tell you that I do not accept as ‘normal’ a situation where every second person on the planet has to manage without this vital digital lifeline.

There’s a lot of talk of the need to define a ‘new normal’ for our post-COVID world. For me, that ‘new normal’ needs to include broadband access for all.

‘New normal’ must include broadband for all

The UN SG has urged us to ‘build back better’. I want to go further, and urge us to ‘build back better with broadband’.

Mozilla Foundation’s Mitchell Baker recently remarked that we ‘must not waste a good crisis’.

So, as my team begins its preparations for our 4-yearly World Telecommunication Development Conference next year in Addis Ababa, we are acutely aware that we have a unique opportunity to harness an unprecedented tide of political will.

We may never again benefit from the intense focus governments are now according digital networks and services.

WTDC-21 represents a unique opportunity to make huge strides forward in connecting the unconnected, building government and industry cooperation around a global ‘big dig’, so that we get those without access online as fast as possible, and leverage the power of digital to achieve the SDGs.

Next time around, we cannot and must not be caught unawares. As former US President John F. Kennedy famously said: The time to mend the roof is when the sun is shining.

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Here’s how we are seizing the moment to build a better digital future – for all

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