Information and Communication Technology regulators and telecom operators have been advised to ensure that digital connectivity is reliable, accessible and available to all citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a high-level dialogue of finance and the ICT ministers, regulators, CEOs of telecom and technology companies from around the world, a set of concrete actions to help governments and private sector cope with the pandemic were approved.
The virtual meeting hosted by the World Bank, in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union GSM Association and the World Economic Forum decided on an accelerated action plan to better leverage digital technologies and infrastructure in support of citizens, governments and businesses.
A statement issued after the meeting stated that participants agreed to accelerate private-public sector collaboration to ensure networks were well equipped to handle an exponential increase in digital traffic, help countries future-proof their digital capabilities and infrastructure for subsequent crises.
According to the statement, the telecom leaders deliberated on how to leverage e-health, telemedicine and big data to address the health crisis.
They pledged to support compliance with social distancing principles while providing vital connectivity and ensure institutional frameworks were fit for purpose.
It added that the final joint action plan would be published by the four organisations to serve as best practice for governments and regulators during the COVID-19 crisis.
The World Bank’s Vice President for Infrastructure, Makhtar Diop, encouraged governments, telecom regulators and operators to ensure access to affordable connectivity during the pandemic.
He said, “Governments, regulators and the telecom industry must do all it takes to deploy affordable, reliable and safe digital technologies. As soon as the crisis hit, we have been working hand in hand with, the ITU, GSMA, and WEF on a joint action plan to help governments cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and increase connectivity access.
“We are committed to work together to achieve the promise of new technologies for all and keep the world connected.”
The Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, said the ITU figures revealed that 3.6 billion people remained totally cut off from the Internet while billions more struggled with connectivity that was woefully insufficient.
“It is a credit to the world’s ICT community that the huge surge in traffic caused by COVID-19 has not crippled our connectivity. But let us also remember that the power to stay connected remains a huge privilege. COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the connectivity chasm we call the digital divide. And it has refocused our minds on why bridging this chasm and bringing affordable access to all is so crucially important to ensuring no-one is left behind,” he added.
The Director General, GSMA, Mats Granryd, urged governments and regulators to work together with the industry to ensure they could meet the demands on networks, while at the same time supporting affordability and access to the full range of services by consumers and businesses.
He said, “Thanks to large and ongoing investments from operators, networks are proving well equipped to handle the unprecedented surge in traffic as more people rely on digital services to work from home, manage their businesses and communicate remotely with friends and family.
“Response to COVID-19 has demonstrated the strategic importance of robust, resilient and secure digital infrastructure to the social welfare of everyone in society and the continued functioning of the economy.”
On his part, the Head of the Future of Digital Economy at the World Economic Forum, Derek O’Halloran, said governments, organisations and individuals globally had become critically dependent on digital connectivity to get the latest information, support health services or access supply chains across the globe
O’Halloran said WEF was looking forward to continuing to work with the World Bank, ITU, GSMA and all other partners to keep the global connective lifeblood of information flowing to tackle the current crisis and sustain that urgency to extend internet access to all.