*The following article has been adapted from my opening remarks at today’s Access Partnership webinar ‘Lessons Learned from Covid-19: Perspectives from the Tower Industry’
ITU has been at the cutting-edge of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for 155 years.
As the UN specialized agency for ICTs, ITU harmonizes the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, develops international technical standards, and assists developing countries with infrastructure and policy development.
Our members – numbering over 900 – from the public and private sectors have worked collaboratively from the start to ensure that these technologies are accessible to all. So, when COVID-19 hit, we lost no time devising our collective response.
A holistic response
One of ITU’s first measures was to launch the Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID) to help address the huge surge in traffic caused by COVID-19 almost overnight. REG4COVID is a testament to the resilience of telecommunication networks as well as the selfless work of regulators, policy-makers and many others. As we look to recovery, this tool will help promote the long-term policy and regulatory trends needed to build back better.
Help us build REG4COVID 2.0 by taking a short survey about what future recovery efforts should look like.
ITU’s response to COVID-19 has been holistic. We have launched new guidelines on emergency telecommunications, on child online protection, and on making digital information, services and products accessible to all people, including persons with disabilities.
We have announced new initiatives that seek to reinforce affordable and reliable connectivity – initiatives that delve into areas as diverse and critical as digital finance, e-education, e-health, e-government and teleworking. We have also built on existing partnerships like the ITU-WHO Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Health, or the ITU-UNICEF Giga initiative to connect every school to the Internet.
Digital inclusion at the centre
All these initiatives have one thing in common: their success rests on our ability to collaborate and to put digital inclusion at the centre of our efforts. Health messaging can save lives.
But what about those who don’t have access to the Internet? ITU has been working with national ministries of telecommunications and health and mobile network operators to text people who may not have access to the Internet with science- and evidence-based COVID-19 health advice directly on their mobile phones.
E-learning has been the norm where possible, with innovative initiatives like Earth School helping to keep an educational focus on global challenges. But is distance learning viable when a new UNICEF-ITU report reveals that two-thirds of the world’s school-age children have no Internet access at home?
Half of the world’s population is still unconnected. While virtually all urban areas in the world are covered by a mobile-broadband network, worrying gaps in connectivity and Internet access persist in rural areas, as ITU’s Measuring Digital Development: Facts and figures 2020 reveals. My hope is that we will use this unique moment in history to strengthen collaboration and cooperation nationally, regionally and internationally – both in the public and private sectors.
A more inclusive, collaborative, and digital ITU
The lockdown has shown that we do not have to commute to our offices every day, nor do we have to travel the world over for a business meeting. For exactly nine months today, ITU has continued its activities efficiently and successfully working from home. This includes reaching the final stage of the radio interface standard for 5G.
I am especially pleased that our virtual meetings and conferences have proved to be even more inclusive than physical meetings.
For example, this year’s WSIS Forum had the highest participation ever and the best balance between stakeholders, regions, and gender. We have also opened the plenary sessions of this year’s World Radiocommunication Seminar to everyone, whether they are members of ITU or not.
I have been pressing for more flexible working in ITU for many years. COVID-19 achieved it in a few weeks! Many sceptics have now been converted.
Let’s hope that the lessons learned from the pandemic will not be forgotten within and beyond the ICT sector as we strive to build back better for a safer and more connected world – together.