ITU Virtual Digital World 2020 – The role of digital technologies during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

20 Oct 2020 13:00h - 14:45h

Event report

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, billions of people have relied on the information and communications technologies (ICTs) to work, study, and to stay connected. However, half of the world’s population still do not have access to the Internet. Mr Malcolm Johnson (Deputy Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union [ITU]), who moderated the session, said that ICTs ‘have never been as appreciated as today’. Johnson stressed the collaboration among different sectors as the key to reaching most of the ICTs potential.

In Vietnam, ICTs have been vital in responding to challenges of the pandemic, when it comes to working, learning, and other social and economic-related activities. The pandemic has also accelerated the focus on cybersecurity and digital transformation. Despite being a developing country, Vietnam has been continuously developing in the field of telecommunication technologies and is working hard to provide ICTs to as many people as possible to reorganise their activities to ‘the new normal’.

Mr Houlin Zhao (Secretary-General, ITU) said that investments, infrastructure, innovation, and inclusiveness, together with the co-operation of all stakeholders are the key to ICTs of future development. He said that more assistance is expected for further advancement of the marketing environment.

In Maldives, tourism has stopped since the COVID-19 started, and ICTs have become the lifeline for facilitating efforts to combat COVID-19 in a variety of ways, from educational and informative purposes, to keeping citizens socially connected. Service providers are working together to provide stable Internet connectivity and mobile telephony. Users have been given discounts and some free data, too. ‘ICTs are the most effective tool for keeping people physically distanced but virtually closer than ever’, said Mr Mohamed Maleeh Jamal (Minister of Communication, Science, and Technology, Maldives). In Maldives, the government is working on boosting agriculture, where ICTs will play a big role.

H.E. Mr Vandeth Chea (Minister of Post and Telecommunications, Cambodia) said that the private and public sectors have joined forces more than ever to minimise the impact to the digitalisation caused by the pandemic crisis. The national strategy is currently focusing on capacity building, as well as the drafting of many policy laws and regulation related to the digital sphere. COVID-19 confirmed the importance of digital technology for social and economic resilience. It has also created opportunities for new economic approaches, especially in the food, education, and health sectors. In the coming period, Cambodia will focus on improving digital literacy and digital skills. They stay committed to cooperate with the international community and all sectors to accelerate recovery and help sustainability.

Ms Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams (Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services, South Africa) said that limited connectivity in rural areas became a real threat during the pandemic . ICTs will soon be considered a basic human right that eliminates the difference between information rich and information poor. Remote working and online schooling were quickly adopted in South Africa, however the situation was also deployed for tracking and tracing which raised the issues of people’s privacy. Ndabeni-Abrahams called for creating more opportunities for young people in Africa and putting people in the centre of all e-services.

Mr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami (Minister of Communications, Nigeria) said that before the COVID-19, the Ministry started focusing more on the digital economy in the country. In less than a year, Internet penetration has increased by 10%. In the next nine years, the plan is to increase the broadband penetration up to 90%. This is one of the top priorities in the national technology policy and in the 2030 agenda.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in Syria, the government has launched free web-based solutions and distance learning applications. The Ministry of Education helped provide live educational classes, while preparing an e-platform for virtual education. Mr Ghassan Saba (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Communications and Technology, Syria) stressed the importance of flexible and high broadband networks for quality in-time video and voice applications. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have shown their new dimension in disease prevention and diagnosis. In parallel, cyberattacks have increased, leading to less confidence in online security and privacy. In Syria, more attention is being currently paid to cyber policies.

The pandemic has clearly shown inequalities when it comes to connectivity and access to technology among people. ICTs are, also in Cuba, a fundamental link to achieving a better situation for all citizens, their economical, educational, and social status. Mr Wilfredo González (Deputy Minister of Communications, Cuba) called on the international community to continue supporting development of ICTs to face and mitigate the challenges both now and in the future.

In Finland, when it comes to ICTs, the focus has been put on trust, privacy, and human centred approach. Ms Pilvi Torsti (State Secretary, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Helsinki) said that at the beginning of the COVID-19, the Finish government formed an ad-hoc working group on digitalisation. It aimed to examine the steps taken during the pandemic to learn from for the future, beyond this specific emergency. The group appeared to be a relevant tool for all citizens when it comes to documenting the process undertaken by the government. It was interesting to see how digitalisation worked for young people and the elderly in Finland, from using ‘Zoom’ to education and staying connected. Torsti concluded that ‘technical capacities were in place in Finland, ‘but mindsets of people were pushed’.

Ms Mirella Liuzzi (Secretary of State, Ministry of Economic Development, Italy) said that in Italy, one of the countries hit hardest at the beginning of the pandemic, digital technologies has been one of the essentials. ICTs provide an important contribution to societies and economies, but they leverage on connectivity. Broadband network services and applications played a crucial role. Italian government acted fast, inviting telecoms to improve quality in this emergency. Platforms, such as distance learning platforms, were made available for free for people with disabilities and disadvantaged families.

Liuzzi stressed the importance of supporting micro and medium-sized enterprises in particular. In Italy, digital strategies need to incorporate more policies to bridge the digital divides. Connectivity in villages and other historically important but technologically left behind areas used to be a challenge before, but especially during the pandemic. ‘Digital strategy is essential for a substantial contribution to the resilience of our societies but also for recovery.’, said Liiuzzi.

Mr Isaias Barreto Rosa (Chairman, Multisectoral Regulatory Agency of the Economy, Cape Verde) also emphasised the persisting challenge of the digital divide. In the current context, one of the key priorities has to be meaningful and affordable connectivity. ‘Bridging the digital divide is of paramount importance and a key commitment of regulators in the country.’, said Rosa.

Jordanians relied heavily on networks for e-learning and conferencing platforms for working, as well as for other everyday needs. Mr Ghazi Al-Jobor (Chairman of the Board of Commissioners and CEO, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), Jordan) said that the regulator has worked extensively to provide support and monitor networks, as well as to provide technical support to people. The regulator has worked with telecoms to make sure that ICTs play their role in helping the country to sustain its development and to ease the pressure put on the citizens, both in cities and rural areas. Additional emergency numbers have been allocated, and in cooperation with operators, citizens have gained easier and more affordable access to, for example, learning platforms.

Ms Battsengel Bolor-Erdene (Chairwoman, Communications and Information Technology Authority (CITA), Mongolia) said that Mongolia supported the private sector through tax exemptions. The government provides around 181 services that citizens can access online. They are committed to collaborate at the international level, but especially within the Asia-Pacific region in order to share and learn from each other.

Digital technologies were brought to light during the pandemic and have shown countries’ preparedness to respond to the COVID-19 challenges, said Mr Keng Thai Leong (Director-General (International Affairs), InfoComm Media Development Authority, Singapore). In Singapore, anonymised trace mobile apps have been developed to keep their citizens protected. The fight against misinformation and disinformation has been a great challenge in Singapore. Therefore, the government has broadened and deepened its efforts to provide verified information for all citizens. Leong notes that the post-COVID19 world will be significantly more digitised. ‘All people should be connected, respected, and protected in the digitalised world.’

It is difficult for Mr Sunil Bharti Mittal (Founder and Chairman, Bharti Enterprises) to imagine a world without digital technologies. Healthcare and telecommunication have emerged as vital during this time. The digital ecosystem (such as e-commerce, education, banking, financial services, etc.) is strongly linked to telecom services to serve the needs of the connected world and the citizens of the world. He called on governments and the private sector to work more together to improve the ICT sector.

Mr Eugene Kaspersky (CEO, Kaspersky Enterprises) noted an increased demand for cybersecurity assistance for different industries. The number of ‘cybercriminals’ has increased, and new malicious applications are on the rise every day. The activities of ‘cybercriminals’ are on the rise by 20-25% compared to the pre-COVID-19 period.

Cyber attacks target the private sector, governments, and the industrial sector. This means that critical infrastructure could be a victim of a cyber attack. ‘We are learning from this time, how to work and operate in cyberspace, how to create new services. The world in the future will be better after the COVID crisis’, says Kaspersky.

With connectivity being essential during the COVID-19 crisis, it placed more demands on telecom providers. It is hard to function ‘in a decent way’ with the existing connectivity gaps, says Mr Marc Vancoppenolle (Global Head of Government Relations, Nokia). Fiber networks and 5G can help with these challenges. Investments in broadband must be accelerated and put at the top of the list. The digital transformation of businesses is also important.

This is an opportunity to make the digital transformation strong and to enable society to become far more sustainable than ever before.

Disruption of COVID-19 is accelerating agility, adaptability, and transformation. Mr Christopher Wellise (Chief Sustainability Officer, Hewlett-Packard Co., United States) said that the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging families, businesses, and communities. As a company whose work is advancing the way people live and work, Hewlett Packard Enterprise is responding with the initiatives to stabilise communities, with the support for customers tackling the challenges of this pandemic, and with the technology that helps organisations adapt to this unprecedented situation.