This article has been adapted from a speech delivered in Barcelona on 25 February 2018 on the eve of Mobile World Congress (MWC) at the Huawei Summit on behalf of ITU’s Secretary-General Mr. Houlin Zhao.
When I was younger, I used to work with my father in the summer. I did this throughout high school and college. My dad was a pediatrician and what I learned during those formative years is that one of the greatest rewards in life is to help others. And to this day, that’s how I see my work at ITU and the role of information technology in general: to help people have a better life, a better future.
It is what drives our industry. It always has been.
As the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), ITU is committed to bringing ICTs to all, for the benefit of all. Mobile technology and ICTs in general are critical to humanitarian response, a central pillar of the UN system. These technologies will help lift people out of poverty, fight inequality, and bring clean and affordable energy to all. And that’s why, under the leadership of Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, harnessing the power of ICTs to help achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is one of our priorities.
ITU has a crucial role to play in bringing all the stakeholders together to address the opportunities and challenges of a global digital economy. In this respect, 2018 will be a critical year, with the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, our highest-level meeting happening every four years, which will unite our unique and diverse membership in October in Dubai around today’s most pressing and complex issues. Indeed, with our 193 Member States and over 800 Industry and Academia Members, ITU is the glue that binds together governments, the private sector and civil society when it comes to seeing the bigger future.
Here are just a few examples of ITU’s key roles shaping emerging technologies.
It’s important to remember that access to ICTs is a development indicator and aspiration in and of itself. And yet, 3.9 billion people are still not connected to the internet. Bridging the digital divide is the core mission of ITU. And we must connect not just all people but things. To that end, 5G will make massive connectivity possible so that billions of devices can be connected together simultaneously and almost instantaneously.
Next year, the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 will lay out and agree on the foundations for 5G and the use of spectrum to meet the ever-growing demand we can see worldwide. I’m happy to report that we saw good progress in the set of technical requirements and criteria agreed for 5G at our ITU-R Study Group 5 meeting last November. ITU has already developed a set of 5G performance targets, preparing the ground for new applications such as automated driving, remote medical diagnosis and advance virtual reality among others.
The 4 I’s – Infrastructure, Investment, Innovation, Inclusivity
The scale of the infrastructure that must be built or upgraded to bridge the digital divide and deploy these emerging technologies is huge and expensive. We are going to need to develop more innovative public-private partnerships that cut across industries and sectors, in particular in those hard-to-reach areas with no internet access. And we’re going to need to help policymakers strengthen their digital development strategies and adopt an enabling environment.
In the latest edition of its World Investment Report, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that less than 25% of these strategies contain details on investment requirements for infrastructure — and less than 5% on investment needs beyond infrastructure, including for the development of digital industries.
Today, ICT ministries and regulators are increasingly having to diversify and become adept in a number of areas other than universal service. Similarly, operators are increasingly being called upon to play policeman, banker, teacher and, in some cases, doctor. And this is placing new demands on the networks, and new demands on the operators.
Through important events like ITU’s annual Global Symposium for Regulators, we hope we can help increase awareness of the need for effective and supportive policies to create an enabling environment for broadband. Divergent regulatory frameworks across the world add complexity, create uncertainty, and discourage investment at a time when GSMA forecasts that operators’ investments will decrease for the first time next year.
Infrastructure and investment are two of the “4 I’s” put forth by Secretary-General Houlin Zhao at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires last October to guide our work toward the 2030 Agenda. The other two are innovation and inclusivity.
To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we will need to bring the power of ICTs to all nations, all people and all segments of society.
Take gender equality, for example. There are over 250 million more men than women online. And the gap is increasing — and in every region of the world.
Just last month, the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development released seven ambitious global broadband targets, including one on gender equality. The Broadband Commission is a perfect example of the type of multi-stakeholder public-private partnership I just mentioned. When ITU and UNESCO launched the Commission almost eight years ago, we believed in the power of ICTs to transform global development. And with valued members like Huawei and GSMA, we never stopped working together to make the benefits of broadband available to everyone ever since.
As we reflect on how we can work together to build a better future, let’s remember that one of the greatest rewards in life is to help others — that ICTs can help us build a more inclusive, a more innovative, and a more sustainable future.
None of us can predict with certainty what the future holds, what the next big breakthrough in information technology will be and what consequences, intended or not, these new technologies will have on society. As the saying goes, predicting the future is easy, getting it right is the hard part. But we can be certain of one thing: only by working together will we move the 2030 Agenda from vision to action and transform the digital revolution into a development revolution.