COVID-19 has dealt a shock to our world. Large swathes of the global population are living under some restrictions and enforced distancing. We are learning to live differently – to learn, socialize, shop, worship and collaborate differently. And we are doing all of this online.
The role of digital connectivity in our lives has grown over recent years, but never have we been so acutely aware of how critically we depend on it. From getting the latest information and health guidance, to supporting health services, adapting supply chains and sourcing equipment from across the globe – we depend on the ability to connect across distance.
However, we are also learning that we cannot take this connectivity for granted. Critical challenges require immediate action to ensure operational continuity and to ensure availability to the people who need it as the COVID19 wave continues across the globe.
The increased demands on our global networks have been dramatic. The use of both video-calling and streamed entertainment services have surged – Zoom has reported a 20-times growth in daily participants. Voice calls in some countries have tripled, and the use of communications apps have doubled.
The sudden shift to everyone living their lives online has led to unprecedented congestion and strain on critical ICT infrastructure. We also see challenges emerging with access and affordability across many countries.
Addressing global internet inequalities
Beyond the immediate COVID-19 response, there is a deeper and more lasting lesson. While it is true that many are only just realizing how much we depend on digital connectivity – it is only true for those who are connected to the internet. Currently, this stands at 53% of the world’s population. Many countries are now starting to face their COVID-19 wave without the luxury of the connected information systems that most if not all readers of this article take for granted.
Never before will the gap between those who are connected and those who are not be so dramatically – and tragically – felt. This tragedy may prove to play out hardest amongst the 47% of the world’s population that are not connected and do not have access to basic information and opportunities.
How to increase connectivity
We urgently need rapid private-public collaboration to make sure that we can connect the people who need to be connected. To support this, the World Bank, ITU, GSMA and World Economic Forum have developed an accelerated collaboration to identify immediate priorities for private-public collaboration that can be taken by governments in partnership with the private sector today.
These five priorities are being shared globally, will form the basis of a joint meeting between industry, ICT and finance ministers in April and will catalyse sustained collaboration between the public and private sectors to increase internet access beyond the current crisis.
1. Promote network resilience
Governments should ensure the continuity of the digital industry supply chain by streamlining customs and logistical processes and classifying network equipment as essential infrastructure. . They should also facilitate emergency access to additional spectrum resources as necessary during the crisis, expedite approvals of new sites and installations and allow voluntary infrastructure sharing and dark fiber provisioning when necessary.
For example, countries including the US, Ireland, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Panama, Brazil and South Africa have provided spectrum relief for operators to provide additional network coverage and capacity.
2. Ensure access to digital services
Governments must promote the smart and responsible use of network resources by the general public during times of crisis without generating systemic distortions. They can do this by authorizing the distribution and purchase of pre-paid mobile services in essential commercial premises for the 5.7 billion customers lacking access to such facilities.
For example, Chile has worked on a “solidarity plan” for affordable internet access in partnership with the private sector. Egypt has offered free SIM cards to students and has committed to bear the costs of providing a 20% increase in all subscribers’ monthly downloads. And Thailand has designed a public assistance scheme for mobile users so that they can register for 10 free gigabytes of data usage.
3. Support compliance while providing connectivity
Key to preventing the spread of coronavirus is supporting the pre-purchase of broadband internet access for government officials and other targeted groups under home-based work to ensure operational continuity of government services as well as support operators’ finances at a time of crisis. For example, many countries have supported teleworking for public servants, including Nigeria.
4. Leverage e-health, telemedicine and big data
Governments can help leverage telemedicine, digital services and apps to foster e-health and support healthcare systems, especially in areas in need of remote medical care. They can ensure a close dialogue between national authorities and operators on the use of mobile data insights to monitor the outbreak while adhering to strict, relevant privacy guidelines.
For example, Pakistan has worked with mobile operators to deliver SMSs to subscribers containing COVID-19 related health information, and Cote d’Ivoire has worked with mobile operators to develop a public health information resource offered via websites and an app.
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US established a $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program that aims to help healthcare providers purchase telecom, broadband connectivity, and devices necessary for providing telehealth services. The FCC also established the Connected Care Pilot Program to provide up to $100 million of support from the existing Universal Service Fund (USF) to help defray health care providers’ costs of providing connected care services and to help assess how the fund can be used in the long-term to support telehealth.
5. Ensure institutional frameworks are fit for purpose
Governments must also support information communication technology (ICT) and telecom ministers to develop emergency action plans and address relevant bottlenecks preventing private sector investment and universal access.
Internet for all in the post-COVID-19 world
Beyond pandemic response, most people now believe that we will exit this crisis with changed expectations, behaviours and norms. We will get back to work, rebuild and create new businesses. We will still face major existential challenges in the form of climate change and related sustainability issues. Knowing in practice what large global disruptions look like, we will take up sustainability challenges with fresh fervour – with big data and analytics playing a critical role in our science-based efforts and digital platforms playing a critical role in distribution collaboration and innovation.
Across all our goals – as individuals and as humans collectively – we will all rely on digital even more in our lives.
Unless we rapidly tackle the challenge to bring high-quality universal internet access to all we will not be able to build inclusive economies. We will not be able to bring our full resources to bear to tackle future pandemics or climate change. And we will not be able to give young people globally access to the wealth of human knowledge so that they can learn, innovate and lead in the future.
We must act urgently to ensure that we keep our global connective lifeblood of information flowing to tackle our current crisis. But we must also make sure that we sustain that urgency to extend access to all.
- Derek O’Halloran is Head of the Shaping the Future of Digital Economy and New Value Creation with the World Economic Forum (WEF). This article was first published on the WEF’s Agenda news channel.