Ministerial Roundtable: The role of digital technologies during and after the COVID 19 pandemic

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Aida Mahmutovic

Mr Mario Maniewicz (Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau, International Telecommunication Union [ITU]) moderated the session.

The development of information and communications technologies (ICTs) need to advance to make them beneficial for all, said Mr Houlin Zhao (Secretary-General, ITU). Emerging technologies need to be put in place by governments and regulators.

In Mauritius in the ICT sector, the number of jobs lost due to the pandemic is low. Digital transformation has to be in accordance with sustainability in order to work, said Mr Deepak Balgobin (Minister of Information Technology, Communication and Innovation, Mauritius). COVID-19 has shown the need to reinvent the way businesses, large corporations, SMEs, as well as individuals work.

COVID-19 showed the digital divide as the biggest challenge in achieving equality among citizens in Bangladesh. ‘We have now realised that villages are not digitalised and many people don’t have access to gadgets.’, said Mr Mustafa Jabbar (Minister of Post and Telecommunication, Bangladesh). In the future, the government of Bangladesh will focus much more on digitalisation.

Digital technologies helped Zimbabwe ensure continuity in trade, education, and staying informed during the pandemic. The government of Zimbabwe relied on online platforms to inform its citizens and to counter increased misinformation. Mr Gift Kallisto Machengete (Director General, Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), Zimbabwe) said that education did not stop solely due to the online learning platforms. Some of them have become so popular that the government plans to keep them operational even after the pandemic. In order to keep everyone informed as equally as possible, community information enters were opened. They offered everything from information boots to the access to online learning platforms for disadvantaged children.

The COVID-19 crisis is different from any other in recent history. The adoption of new technologies is usually very slow and takes a long time to become a lifestyle change. With COVID-19 this change happened much faster. The government of Vietnam, rolled out an open source application called ‘Bluezone’ which has had around 20 million downloads so far. It helps people stay informed in case they have been in close contact with people who have tested positive for the virus.

In Kenya, the advancement of digital technologies helped several transformations, said Ms Mercy Wanjau (Acting Director General, Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), Kenya). It increased financial inclusion and access to trade services. Digital technologies have been a great equaliser of today. They offer various means to cope with different natural disasters, as was the case of the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to providing essential public services. In Kenya, regulators have worked hard to ensure quality delivery of education on mandated platforms or to release verified health information.

Cybersecurity incidents, mostly fake news and cyberstalking, have been on the rise. Wanjau sees digital technology will continue being at the core of people’s lives beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The average cost of an entry-level smartphone in Africa still exceeds 60% of the average monthly income. Therefore, making the Internet available for everyone is a great challenge, says Mr Alioune Ndiaye (Chief Executive Officer of Orange Middle East and Africa). Connectivity in Africa gained additional value during the pandemic. Mobile money is the finance of the future, and companies will have to reorganise to offer more e-services. In Africa, the lack of local infrastructure is a big challenge. Ndiaye called for stronger support from the government and regulators for a better digital future in Africa.

Mr Rupert Pearce (Chief Executive, Inmarsat) said that broadband connectivity remains critical for the wellbeing of any society. With the digital divide expanding, broadband connectivity becomes the main issue to work on.

Technology plays a significant role in Iran during COVID-19. The Iranian government works on targeted service delivery when it comes to the needs of their citizens. The government has offered learning platforms for children and students free of charge. Mr Sattar Hashemi (Deputy Minister for Technology and Innovation, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology [MICT], Iran [Islamic Republic of]) said that providing different effective platforms in a short period of time has been a challenge, but nevertheless ‘good solutions have been developed’ in the country. Dependency on data gathering and analytics has helped with many activities and services in the time of pandemic.

The Government in Azerbaijan developed an online app with the aim to provide timely information and briefs in the entire country. In a short period of time, successful results have been achieved in the field of online education as well. Mr Ramin Guluzade (Minister of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, Azerbaijan) said that the government started working on a new digital development strategy, which will focus specifically on remote areas. Azerbaijan is currently experiencing challenges with both COVID-19 and providing support to over 1 million of Azerbaijani refugees due to the conflict with Armenia.

The government of Israel is committed to connecting people, saving lives, and improving people’s lives through technology. During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology became a critical lifeline when people were forced to stay in their homes. This showed how essential a reliable digital infrastructure has become for teleworking, telemedicine, or online education. Mr Yoaz Hendel (Minister of Communications, Israel) said that his ministry is heavily promoting fibre optics and 5G networks. In the upcoming period, they are working on pilot projects, innovations, and initiatives to enforce applications of technology in every aspect of life.

Israel is equipping hospitals with 5G networks, to offer cutting-edge solutions while dealing with the Coronavirus crisis.

Mr Konstantinos Masselos (President, Hellenic Telecommunications and Post Commission [EETT], Greece) said that the pandemic outbreak has accelerated the availability of some services that would take years for operators and telecoms to set and launch. Nevertheless, it is clear that some resilience problems exist. Masselos emphasised the importance of meaningful connectivity for all people in all countries of the world.

In Lithuania, the regulatory authority worked additionally on monitoring and supporting quality services. Ms Lina Rainiene (Deputy Director General, Communications Regulatory Authority, Lithuania) said that during COVID-19 they issued guidelines on efficient service use and online safety. With the broadband connectivity growing and 5G networks expanding, it sets high standards for regulators and institutions to be resilient in the event of a future crisis.

Mr Jay Carney (Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs Amazon United States of America) spoke about the benefits of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) which offers cloud computing services. It offers artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT), analytics, and other services. They serve the majority of countries and territories including fastest growing startups. Organisations and entities that used cloud services were able to swiftly adapt to their specific needs due to COVID-19. Carney also spoke about the importance of focusing on digital transformation now more than ever. In the post COVID-19 world, it is important to consider leveraging cloud costs. He called on countries to be examples and champion cloud policies, inviting industries and governments to collaborate more.

Ms Allyson West (Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation, Trinidad and Tobago) said that the regulator has taken several measures as a response to the ongoing crisis:

  1. More spectrum was sent free of charge and ensured services provision was configured to be able to deal with the crises
  2. Free Internet was provided for students in low-income households
  3. Continuous work on solving the problem for homes and children who do not have access to the Internet at all. 

The Government in Trinidad and Tobago has removed taxes on mobile phones and computers to be more affordable for all.

In Venezuela, access to digital infrastructure has never been more important. Ms Gloria Carvalho (Vice Minister of Information Technologies, Venezuela) said that the digital divide is not new, but COVID-19 has given a new dimension of the emergency to reduce it. She called on governments to focus on strategies to reduce the digital divide as a way to foster social inclusion.

Mr Julio Munoz (Vice-Minister, Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Society, Ecuador) said that in Ecuador, the ministry has provided free data usage for online applications related to emergency, health, and education. Connectivity has been expanded in rural areas and device prices have been reduced.

The ‘Line 171’ hotline has recorded over 3 million calls since the beginning of the pandemic, providing people with health information. Future activities include providing around 2,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across Ecuador and building national infrastructure for e-commerce. The national cybersecurity policy to strengthen security applications is underway.

Ms Virginia Nakagawa Morales (Vice Minister of Communications, the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Peru) said that in Peru, data traffic has increased by over 30% since the beginning of the pandemic. The ministry has improved two pieces of legislation to make it easier to set up infrastructure and provide a broader spectrum to those in need. Increased Internet coverage and better services are important for the progress of people.

The government and the private sector plan to collaborate in the near future to set up infrastructure across the country.

Mr Mats Granryd (Director General, GSMA) said that the GSMA is focused on unlocking the power of technology for all people, especially now that everyone is relying entirely on the Internet and infrastructure. Mobile is the most common way for people to access the Internet. Past financial investments of mobile operators in infrastructure have helped immensely in this crisis. In Rwanda, for example, money transfer activities have doubled.

The priority of the mobile industry is to continue to invest in mobile networks and enable services of smart solutions. In April 2020, GSMA, ITU, The World Bank, and World Economic Forum (WEF) organised a round table to present an accelerated action plan to better leverage digital technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic.