By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General
*The following article has been adapted from my opening remarks at the GovInsider Live Festival of Innovation.
We all yearn for stability in our lives. Even if it’s for the best, no one really likes the uncertainty change entails.
For most of us, stability would mean going back to pre-COVID times when we could meet with work colleagues, attend classes in person or socialize with friends and relatives without worrying about getting sick.
However, the ‘normal’ is not what many others would want to return to. Millions worldwide suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, lack of education, clean water and sanitation and other areas addressed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Progress in these areas was not up to the ambitious timescales set, but progress was being made. Now the pandemic has reversed many gains and led to even greater challenges.
Three areas to focus on
So how do we achieve stability in such an uncertain world? In my view, there are three areas to focus on. First: more reliance on information and communication technologies (ICTs). Second: better collaboration, cooperation and coordination at the national, regional and international levels. And third, the adoption of a new more sustainable socio-economic model based on the lessons learned from the pandemic.
Leveraging ICTs for universal connectivity
The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated the power and promise of ICTs as never before. During lockdown, ICTs have given billions of people around the world the ability to continue their work, studies, care of others and remain connected to loved ones, largely thanks to the network operators and platform providers that have been able to successfully respond to the huge increase in demand over the past few months.
I believe that the increased recognition of the importance of being connected, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, will make it sooner rather than later that everyone, everywhere is connected. It is now clear to all that bridging the digital divide will be essential to achieve the SDGs, and that includes the 3.6 billion people around the world that are still not connected to the Internet.
Meanwhile, the digital gender divide is widening and even though average connection prices are broadly continuing to fall, broadband services remain too expensive for the poor. Many services are yet to become fully accessible to persons with disabilities, including the elderly. All these people have been deprived of the digital lifeline that has been instrumental in keeping economies and societies going during this crisis, and this despite the fact that 97 per cent of the world population now lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal.
A new ITU study estimates it might cost hundreds of billions of dollars to bring these people online by 2030. This can only be achieved through an unprecedented and concerted effort from the public and private sectors. It is a high cost but the cost of not doing so in lives and human misery is even higher.
A unique moment in history: Strengthening collaboration and coordination
International cooperation between all stakeholders, public and private, is essential to fight this virus but also to deliver the sustainable development agenda. When we all work together, bringing our own specific competencies to the table and avoiding duplication of effort and pooling our resources for the common good, we will succeed.
ITU, as the UN specialized agency for ICTs, offers a good example of collaboration with a diverse membership of 193 governments and over 900 private sector companies, universities, and regional and international organizations working together to harness the power of technology as a source for good.
Last year’s ITU World Radiocommunication Conference was a good example of such collaboration in revising the Radio Regulations, the international treaty governing the use of radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. Among the many outcomes of this conference was the adoption of a new regulatory framework for the deployment of low earth orbiting satellite networks and the identification of new frequency bands for high altitude platforms. Both measures open up new opportunities for affordable connection to underserved communities in rural and remote areas.
The Conference also identified an additional 17.25 GHz spectrum for 5G – 8 times more than was previously available. This harmonized spectrum will facilitate the deployment of 5G mobile networks worldwide, ensuring coordination and compatibility with the various other services using the radio spectrum. 5G offers huge benefits over the previous generation in terms of capacity – transporting a huge amount of data much faster, more reliably and securely and with much reduced latency – which is very important for some key applications of 5G such as healthcare, autonomous vehicles, smart cities and collaborative robotics, to name a few.
Building trust in ICTs
ITU is also responsible for developing the technical international standards that ensure interoperability and interconnection of equipment and services from different vendors and operators, creating a worldwide market and reducing costs through economies of scale. These standards provide much-needed certainty in today’s uncertain world by building trust, confidence, and security in the use of ICTs. Trust is the core of ITU’s work, it is the cornerstone of bridging the digital divide and creating stability.
International standards create efficiencies and economies of scale that ultimately result in lower costs to producers and lower prices to consumers. At a time when investment in ICT infrastructure is critical, standards protect past investments while creating the confidence to continue investing in our digital future. In this area, as in the other areas of ITU’s work, cross-industry and public-private sector collaboration is essential.
My hope is that we will use this unique moment in history to strengthen collaboration and cooperation nationally, regionally and internationally – and among the public and private sectors. At stake is our ability to build the digital infrastructure to connect everyone and to give everybody access to safe, attractive, and affordable digital services.
No going back: Integrating lessons learned
I also very much hope that the Lessons learned from the pandemic will not be forgotten as we struggle to tackle more long-term global challenges such as climate change.
ICTs are a key part of building back better for a safer, more connected, and more sustainable world. The lockdown has shown that we don’t have to commute to the office every day, we don’t have to fly across the world for a business meeting, we don’t have to rely on paper. We can be efficient and effective working from home, and at the same time benefit from a better work life balance.
For nearly six months now, ITU has continued its activities efficiently and successfully working from home, continuing with the coordination of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits, continuing to develop international technical standards through virtual meetings and conferences – which have proved to be more inclusive than physical meetings. This includes reaching the final stage of the radio interface standard for 5G.
For many years I have been pressing for more flexible, paperless working in ITU; COVID-19 achieved it in a few weeks! Let’s hope there will be no going back.
I look forward to continuing this conversation with all of you as we reflect deeper on the real meaning of ‘stability’ six months into a pandemic that has shocked the world and left us even more uncertain about the future.
Image credit: Jana Shnipelson via Unsplash.