The COVID-19 virus has presented a stress test for governments worldwide, with the Internet playing a crucial role in keeping critical infrastructure and resources connected and available.
For instance, reliable, high-speed internet is key to ensuring that hospitals and medical institutions have access to global information networks and resources necessary to fight the virus. Broadband connectivity is also now absolutely crucial for educational institutions and businesses to continue to provide essential services.
The unprecedented global health emergency is taxing networks and platforms to the limit, with some operators and platforms reporting demand spikes as high as 800%.
“The traffic jams have moved from the streets to online, as we’ve seen increased traffic, online and data usage,” said H.E Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister of Communications of Ghana, yesterday during the second of a new webinar series on Digital Cooperation during COVID19 and beyond. The webinars are organized by ITU and the Office of the UN Under Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild, with a view to helping identify solutions and common approaches and strategies from different nations and stakeholders.
“I think what COVID has done, is actually to put the will to get the world connected right in front of us – and we rallied around that will,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. “We have come together in these very difficult circumstances and we have come up with innovative practices to actually better connect people who actually weren’t connected before.”
With the theme of Best Practices: What Works, What Doesn’t, the webinar looked at how key public and private sector stakeholders from countries across the world are working together to meet unprecedented demand – and identified lessons learned in keeping the networks the whole world is now relying on up and running.
Many speakers highlighted the need to create an enabling policy and regulatory environment to meet current challenges. Agile, flexible and collaborative solutions were presented, including facilitating access to spectrum resources during the crisis for the purpose of relieving congestion, expanding or improving broadband access – as well as enabling temporary spectrum allocations and implementing emergency communications preparedness plans.
“All of us have to imagine crises of this type to make sure that our networks are sized properly for a surge in demand, and critical equipment is available for rapid deployment. Likewise, regulators and governments have to be ready to accelerate administrative action,” said Stephen Spengler, CEO of IntelSat.
In Ghana, for example, the Ministry provided additional spectrum to two telecoms companies for three months to enable them to increase their capacity; the regulator gave approval to use UMTS technology over 2G to provide data to all sectors of the network.
Settlement fees have been waived for electronic payment services.
In Singapore, meanwhile, local internet data traffic has spiked by 60 per cent following the outbreak of COVID-19, said Jane Lim, Assistant Chief Executive of Sectoral Transformation for the InfoComm Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore.
“Our systems have been able to support the surge,” Lim told the roughly 330 participants joining the webinar. “And we’ve also announced that we will continue to work closely with the telcos to make immediate investments to upgrade the networks and better bolster our nationwide network capacity as part of our Smart Nation strategy.”
“We set aside nearly SG$ 60 billion – about 12 per cent of our GDP – to support businesses, workers and households during these turbulent times,” said Lim.
“The networks were made for this,” said Craig Labovitz, Chief Technology Officer at Nokia. “It’s important as a global society that we continue these investments in the infrastructure, and in the coordination of building out and interconnecting the different networks.”
But resilient infrastructure is only part of the solution, highlighted UN Under Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild.
“Some of the problems relate not to the presence of infrastructure, but to the presence of affordable access… and some of the problems, even here in New York City, relate to absence of hardware,” he said. He noted that the upcoming Secretary-Generals’ Roadmap on Digital Cooperation would tackle many of the key issues being highlighted, and that further cooperation with all stakeholders would be critical.
The stellar line-up of speakers was followed by reactions and comments from a number of participants, who presented practical and widespread efforts to connect communities during this health crisis — including solutions to meet network and hardware needs.
For example, Máximo Torero Cullen, Chief Economist/Assistant Director-General of the Economic and Social Development Department of FAO, highlighted that the government of Peru has distributed roughly 600,000 tablets to rural areas to enable online education. Meanwhile, Facebook has directed nearly two billion people across its various applications to expert health resources, according to Robert Pepper, Director for Connectivity Policy at Facebook.
The COVID-19 pandemic has injected new urgency into efforts to bring meaningful connectivity and key digital services – from education to finance and health services – to communities across the globe.
Participants agreed that while the focus is currently on short-term quick fixes, there is a need to think about how to implement lasting resilience across all aspects of connectivity in the medium- and long-term.
“We need to look at what digital can do, not just to get us through this emergency, but to get the world back on its feet,” said ITU Director of Telecommunications Development Doreen Bogdan-Martin. “ How might we leverage this crisis to create an environment that is less focused on profit, and more focused on protecting our planet, and its people?” She encouraged participants to work on longer-term vision of how we can leverage the Expert Roundtable’s discussions to follow-up on the recommendations of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, to get economies and societies back on track with the Agenda 2030 in focus.
Closing the connectivity gap – currently estimated at around 49 per cent – is crucial to this goal, said Jane Coffin, Senior Vice President, Internet Growth, Internet Society. She launched a collaborative call to action to reduce the global connectivity gap to 20% by 2030.
“I think we should aim for universal connectivity by 2030,” countered UN Under Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild.
IntelSat’s Spengler pointed out that we have the technology to bring everyone in the world online today. What is missing is the political will to work together and make it happen, he said.
Can we change that?
“It’s a matter of collaboration; we have the technology to close the connectivity gap… we just have to have the will to work together and put together the projects and the funding to make it happen,” said Spengler. “So that is our challenge – and it’s an opportunity as well.”
NOTE: ITU developed and released the REG4COVID platform, a global repository of emergency actions that the digital community around the world is already taking to ensure availability, accessibility and resilience of networks and resources.
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