Written by Doreen Bogdan Martin, Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the International Telecommunications Union and Executive Director of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development
As we prepare to close the year of 2020, a year that has been full of global challenges matched with global solutions, the need for universal connectivity has never been more apparent. From opening the online classroom to providing virtual healthcare services, broadband has proven to be the hidden hero of the COVID-19 pandemic. Closing the digital divide is of the utmost importance to build back a sustainable and inclusive world.
Since its inception in 2010, the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission has worked towards the mission of a connected world in support of sustainable development. The Commission strongly supports the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which outlines recommendations for concrete action by diverse stakeholders that would enhance global digital cooperation to ensure a world where everyone has safe and affordable access to broadband, and commits to collaborate on its implementation.
Putting universal connectivity at the very forefront of sustainable development efforts and recognizing its central role in the 2030 Agenda is the rallying call we made to world leaders and heads of industry in the Broadband Commission’s Manifesto last September.
The Global Connectivity Goal put forth by the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development Manifesto, stresses the need for global digital cooperation in reaching this goal. Emphasizing that, “the pandemic and its socio-economic impacts have underscored the urgency of concrete, coordinated actions across all sectors and geographies. With less than ten years remaining until 2030, now is the time to establish digital connectivity as the foundational pillar for our shared Global Goals.” In collaboration with other international organizations, governments, the private sector and civil society, we are laying out a path to Universal Connectivity.
What steps are in place to reach this goal?
1 Step 1: Connect To reach our global connectivity goal we need to support the construction of infrastructure, especially in the most vulnerable communities. To start, we must first identify where there are connections globally. ITU has launched Interactive Transmission Maps that take stock of national backbone connectivity as well as other key metrics of the ICT sector. These maps help inform our other initiatives, such as Connect2Recover, a program working to galvanize action for affordable and reliable connectivity as part of COVID-19 recovery strategies. The Commission keeps its work and focus on the connectivity gaps, investments required with its Working Group in 21st Century financing models. As the official knowledge partner of the G20 Digital Economy Taskforce, ITU has begun to analyze global investment needs, publishing progress in its recent Connecting Humanity Report. The study outlines a need for both global cooperation and a regional approach to bring the unconnected online.
2Step 2: Respect The needs of communities differ by culture, geographic location, population and dozens of other demographic distinctions. Sustainable development is contingent on the accurate assessment of these needs, and thus the appropriate investment strategy to address them. The ITU continues to prioritize gender programming to improve access and skill for women through its EQUALS Global Partnership initiative, this year awarding 5 groups for their innovative work promoting gender equality in internet access, digital skills and tech leadership.
3Step 3: Protect ITU and other ICT initiatives base all work in the core value that connection must be safe. Protecting the safety of broadband users, specifically of youth and children, is a crucial step in ensuring meaningful and sustainable connectivity. Through collaborative educational programs like Giga and initiatives like the Child Online Protection Guidelines we are able to progress towards our connectivity goal without compromising the safety or future of its users.
Progress was both made and lost this year, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as we see in the recent ITU Facts and Figures Report, while the rollout of mobile-broadband networks has slowed, with developing countries being specifically affected, and cellular subscriptions are down, we have also seen growth in international bandwidth and youth usage rising to 70%. Most strikingly, the urban and rural digital divide persists with access in urban areas being almost twice that of their rural counterparts.
As the President of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir stated in an open letter to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development,
“Now more than ever, the work of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission is pivotal towards advancing universal digital connectivity and leaving no one behind.”
Looking forward to 2021 and beyond, we will continue our work to advance connectivity and digital solutions in this final Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs by 2030, calling for strong partnerships, inclusion, financing, leadership and innovation on a global scale.
How many children and young people have internet access at home?
Estimating digital connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the largest mass disruption of education in history and worsened the global learning crisis. In April 2020, more than 190 countries instituted national school closures, putting up to 1.6 billion students at risk of falling behind at great cost to their education and futures.
In response, ministries of education all over the world have deployed different remote learning policies, and education stakeholders have been inspired to “reimagine education” by harnessing technology to close the persistent gaps in access to education that limit the potential of children and young people around the world.
The digitalization of society has made ICT skills and access to technology important, but the COVID-19 pandemic has turned these things into essential human rights in terms of the educational, social and professional needs of children and young people. The lack of connectivity among the most marginalized populations – children and young people from poor households and rural areas – places them at an extreme disadvantage, and all but eliminates any chance they might have of participating in the modern economy.
To this end, UNICEF has joined forces with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to launch Giga, an ambitious global initiative to connect every school to the internet and every young person to information, opportunity and choice. With the support of Generation Unlimited, UNICEF now works under the Reimagine Education initiative which aims to address the learning crisis and transform education by giving children and young people equal access to quality digital learning.
This report supports these efforts with findings from a first-of-its-kind analysis that delivers critical insights about the vast numbers of children and young people whose education and professional futures are jeopardized by a lack of access to digital technology at home. Today, 2.2 billion children and young people are still unconnected, deprived of the digital technologies and services that have proved so essential during the pandemic. Closing the digital divide will require significant resources, cooperation and dedication. But we must act – the ability of many children and young people to achieve their full potential depends on it.
Intelsat and Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) were recently honored for their work bringing mobile connectivity to millions of people in remote areas across Sub-Saharan Africa. Euroconsult awarded Intelsat and AMN the “Mobile Connectivity/Universal Access Award” as part of its Awards for Excellence in Satellite Communications during World Satellite Business Week, earlier this month.
“This new edition of Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures comes at an extraordinarily challenging time for the international community. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on lives, societies and economies around the world, many of our daily activities have moved online, throwing a sharp spotlight on global connectivity. If you are reading this, it means you are online – but what about the billions of people still not fortunate enough to be able to connect?
Facts and Figures 2020 reveals that people in rural areas continue to face greater challenges than people in urban areas in terms of remaining connected during the lockdown, especially in developing economies. Large swathes of the rural landscape are still not covered by mobile broadband networks, and fewer households in these areas have access to the Internet.”
Excerpt from the Foreword written by BDT Director Doreen Bogdan-Martin
The Geneva Digital Atlas is a comprehensive mapping of the digital policy and Internet governance scene in International Geneva. The Atlas provides an in-depth coverage of the activities of almost 40 actors, including the analysis of policy processes and cataloguing of core instruments and featured events.
This year, the Broadband Commission is featured as the flagship example of a 10 year-long partnership for digital development.
Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fundamental need for broadband connectivity and increased digital capacities for economies and societies worldwide. Begging the question, how do we accelerate action in the face of unprecedented setbacks brought on by “a crisis unlike any” in the United Nations’ 75-year history?
Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner for Refugees of UNHCR emphasizes how leveraging comparative advantages across partnerships and developing effective, efficient collaboration is more vital than ever. Touching on how the Broadband Commission’s Agenda for Action has been a powerful vehicle for bringing together government representatives, the private sector, international organizations, and UN Agencies such as UNHCR to build not only a consensus of the challenges faced in maintaining digital services in times but building strategies and practical solutions to expand such services to marginalized populations such as refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, so they are not left behind.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women brings the shadow pandemic of violence against women has been growing within homes around the world to the forefront. Sharing data showing a spike in reporting of domestic violence through helplines since COVID-19 lockdowns started and the partnerships UN Women has leveraged with tech giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook to provide important information about helpline services for domestic violence survivors.
Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon details how the company has used its values of integrity, performance excellence, and social responsibility to guide its assessment and response to the COVID-19 crisis and the related needs of their four key stakeholders: employees, customers, society, and shareholders.
Dr. Joanna Rubinstein, President & CEO of the World Childhood Foundation USA explains the issue of child online safety and how risks to children have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Calling for action, she presents the Child Online Safety Universal Declaration as the first step to impact change.
Makhtar Diop, Vice President for Infrastructure of The World Bank asks, “What will it take for Africa to bridge the digital connectivity gap?” A question that the Broadband Commission Working Group intended to answer through their publication, ‘Broadband for All: A Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa’. Diop details these findings, giving relevant COVID-19 examples and calling for greater collaboration across industries, governments, and institutions for accelerated progress towards the targets in the African continent.
Road to Addis 9 – 19 November 2020
The Road to Addis is a series of virtual events hosted by the ITU in anticipation of the WTDC-21 conference, which will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from the 8th until the 19th of November 2021, and which will be preceded by a Youth Summit. The Road to Addis has been designed with three Goals in mind:
– Build momentum and awareness towards WTDC-21
– Engage key stakeholders and communities, and
– Provide an inclusive platform to discuss some of the key themes that will be addressed at the WTDC-21.
World Bank, ITU, GSMA and WEF Second high-level Roundtable (Invitation Only) 9 December 2020
Co-hosted by the World Bank, the International Telecommunication Union, the World Economic Forum, and GSMA under the theme “the Role of Digital Technologies in the Covid-19 Crisis: From Emergency Response to Resilient Recovery”, the roundtable will focus on the lessons learned from the COVID emergency response and examine how to move from crisis response to shaping long-term resilience in the digital sector and beyond. This virtual event builds on the High-Level Roundtable and Digital Development Action Plan developed by the four organizations in April 2020. Registration details are sent via email to Commissioners.
WTDC-21 8-19 November 2021
WTDC-21 will be a landmark digital development conference and a unique opportunity for the global community to develop innovative approaches and forge new models of collaboration to overcome digital development challenges and accelerate connectivity and digital solutions in the final Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).