UN body pushes for expansion of internet access, capacity boost to fight Covid-19

An emergency virtual meeting of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has adopted an Agenda for Action outlining immediate measures that governments, industry, the international community and civil society can take to shore-up digital networks, strengthen capacity at critical connectivity points like hospitals and transport hubs, and boost digital access and inclusivity. All these measures are aimed at strengthening collective response to the COVID-19 crisis now sweeping the world.
Built around three pillars: Resilient Connectivity, Affordable Access, and Safe Use for Informed and Educated Societies, the agenda serves as a framework for the Commission’s over 50 Commissioners and their organizations to share their own initiatives, make new commitments, and foster collaboration and partnership.
Over 100 representatives from around the world participated in the virtual meeting, which brought together stakeholders from international organizations, the tech sector, civil society and academia, including global CEOs, heads of agency, and leaders of tech and health industry bodies.​​​​
UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Advisor, Fabrizio Hochschild, made an impassioned plea to Commissioners and their organizations to enhance digital cooperation in response to COVID-19, and to do all in their power to combat misinformation and rising inequality, maximize access to relevant data for public good, and protect the millions of additional children joining the online community for the first time in order to connect to remote learning platforms.
Echoing these concerns, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF, said: “This pandemic is doing what any big shock will do, and increasing the distance between those who have and those who do not. In addition to the devastating immediate effects of COVID-19, the secondary impacts on education, jobs, and finances will continue to impact children, and the world’s most vulnerable, disproportionately in the years to come.”
In his remarks, ITU Secretary-General and Commission co-Vice Chair Houlin Zhao, emphasized the vital importance of accelerating global efforts to connect the remaining half of the population still totally without internet access. “As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, making in-roads in the developing world and threatening all of humanity, we need to take immediate action to ensure no one is left behind. This unprecedented crisis shows that nobody is safe until we are all safe. And it shows, with no ambiguity, that we will not unleash the full potential of broadband until we are all connected.”
Developing countries currently have the vast majority of the estimated 3.6 billion people who remain totally offline.
Representing Commission co-chair President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Patrick Nyirishema, Director-General, Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, said the Commission was rising to challenge and “walking the talk” in its efforts to recommend rapid and tangible actions governments, ICT regulators, private companies and the international community could take, individually and collectively, to optimize the power of digital resources to combat the global health crisis. “​​​​​​This pandemic has underscored the vital importance of broadband infrastructure to governments and communities around the world,” he said.
Dr Carlos M Jarque, participating on behalf of Commission Co-Chair, Carlos Slim, stressed the need to harness technology for the common good. “No past epidemic has had access to the broadband services we have today. Broadband can save lives and mitigate the economic consequences of the pandemic,” he said. “It is important to use networks to disseminate timely information to preserve good health; to support e-learning for the more than 1.5 billion students working from home; to train, by digital means, workers in confinement to increase overall productivity, and to promote e-commerce and digital services.” In Latin America, he noted, millions are now using educational content made freely available by the Carlos Slim Foundation.
In a message delivered on behalf of UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Moez Chakchouk, noted that to date 1.53 billion learners in 184 countries have been impacted by school closures. He encouraged the Broadband Commission membership to join the Global Education Response for COVID-19 launched on March 26, following the lead of the WHO, ITU, GSMA, Microsoft, Facebook, UNICEF and the World Bank.
UNESCO DG Azoulay’s message also emphasized “​a duty to start thinking about the world after COVID-19. We need to address the inequalities in access and skills which have been so starkly revealed by the crisis, and which are so damaging to those who are most vulnerable,” she said.
Last week, ITU launched the Global Network Resiliency Platform to help policy makers, regulators and industry players ensure that networks are kept resilient and telecoms services are available to all – and in particular, those in the health and education sectors – to the maximum extent possible.
While 53 per cent of the world’s population is now online, billions of people remain totally unconnected, unable to access emergency health information and vital government services, and unable to participate in the digital economy. The Commission’s most recent global State of Broadband 2019 report also notes that many of those counted as ‘connected’ nonetheless struggle with very low bandwidth, infrequent access via internet cafés, and very high connection costs, compared with those in highly connected industrialized nations. ​


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