COVID-19 makes universal digital access and cooperation essential: ITU
As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes the way in which we work, keep in touch, go to school and shop for essentials – across the world – it has never been more important to bridge the digital divide for the 3.6 billion people who remain off-line. This according to top experts from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), who outlined the implications of the new coronavirus pandemic during a digital briefing to correspondents accredited to the UN in Geneva.
“Digital new society already came into our life, but we never imagined that we could be forced to stay at home and to use the digital worlds to connect ourselves and make our business continue. So that is something absolutely new,” said the ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, who said that we should all be grateful for work being put in behind the scenes of the pandemic by workers in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). Workers of the ICT sector were described by another ITU official as “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.
“We should also recognize that ICT services and ICT networks are not so easy to manage, because nobody could imagine, that under such circumstances that traffic could to some extent triple,” Mr. Zhao said, referencing the massive surge for videoconferencing and mobile telephony traffic that the health crisis has engendered.
One important challenge has been the massive shift in the need for broadband away from urban office buildings, toward the suburban and rural where people are now telecommuting from their homes.
“Additional spectrum has been identified,”said Mario Maniewicz, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, adding that such resources can be used by countries “for new technologies that can help provide coverage at affordable prices to underserved communities. These technologies are both satellite and terrestrial, and can cover large areas, and they promise to enable affordable broadband access in rural and remote areas.”
Mr. Maniewicz added that now that spectrum has been allocated governments must make use of these existing allocations to enable the telecommunications providers to do their job of servicing this “universal need” for broadband access.
The call for universal access to broadband has never been more keenly felt, said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union: “ There’s a lot of talk about defining the new normal in the post-Covid world and for me ‘new normal’ needs to include broadband access for all.”
With 1.5 billion children currently out of school, Ms. Bogdan-Martin pointed to the desperate need for digital partnership such the initiative ITU is currently undertaking with UNICEF, known as the GIGA initiative, to ensure that schooling everywhere can be provided through online platforms. At the same time, she said, the ITU saw a need to accelerate the provision of global online child protection guidelines, which are now expected to be issued in the next two weeks.
A worrying development has been the massive spike in cyber-crime that has accompanied the shift to digital in the COVID-19 crisis.
“The COVID-19 crisis has also resulted in a huge surge of online criminal activity. Bad actors have been exploiting fear and uncertainty, and my own cyber-security team has set up an online repository to really help countries be able to protect their network, businesses and of course their users. And then linked to this is of course the risks for children,” said Ms. Bogdan-Martin. One telecoms company, Vodaphone, was cited as having reported 300-fold rise in phishing attacks through its systems since the pandemic started.
For all the dangers that current scenario presents, and for basic challenges such as the unavailability of electric power the ITU officials remained optimistic about the opportunities that are afforded by the present crisis to leverage new-found political to deliver connectivity for all.
In addition to expanding access globally, the ITU has been studying different technologies that have been submitted to it for contact-tracing during the pandemic, although Dr Reinhard Scholl, the Deputy Director of the organization’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, said that the world would have to wait for the “dust to settle” before recommendations could be made as to which works best.
The ITU’s top official, Mr. Zhao, said that as the world contemplates the post-COVID future, the global development of 5G networks would be absolutely essential to deliver such services as remote surgery and autonomous driving. Plans for 5G would have to be included in national development strategies, he said.