The panel focused on trade, liberalisation, international regulatory and policy options, development assistance and community network collaborations to connect people and improve local circumstances. Moderating the session, Ms Jane Coffin (Senior Advisor to the CEO, Connectivity & Infrastructure, Internet Society) reminded participants that 49% of the world is still unconnected and all the panellists agreed about the need to connect the other half of the world. She added that there are new innovative ways to connect the unconnected and some organisations are already working on solutions.
Ms Lee Tuthill (Counsellor, Trade in Services Division, World Trade Organisation [WTO]) emphasised that collaboration and innovative regulation are key in connecting the unconnected. She encouraged competition to help reduce costs. Regarding regulatory innovation, she referred to a WTO paper where over 100 governments have signed to add market commitments in telecommunication infrastructure. In terms of e-commerce, Tuthill mentioned that the Internet is the foundation but not the entire ecosystem. In terms of regulatory principles, she recommend taking a light-handed approach, even when some things are important and need to be regulated.
Mr Torbjorn Fredriksson (Chief ICT Policy Section, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [UNCTAD]) mentioned that digitalisation is now transforming everything that we do but there is a need for a constant reminder that half of the world’s population is not benefiting, and in developing countries, only about 20% has access to digitalisation. He shared statistics showing that about 15-17% of countries buy things online and in developing countries it is 2-3%. He added that 1-2% of aid/funding goes to ICT infrastructure, and out of that, only 4% is dedicated to policy formulation.
He gave an example from Rwanda, which has been a success story in rolling out mobile connectivity at about 100% but recent reports by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) show that only 20% of the population is using the services and 1% using it for online commerce. He stressed the need to look at both demand and supply sides of connectivity.
Ms Sofie Maddens (Head, Regulatory and Market Environment Division, ITU) emphasised the need for affordable and available connectivity, and collaboration across stakeholders and actors so that the world benefits from digitalisation. She referred to the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Bueno Aires, Argentina in 2017 that declared that universally accessible, secure, and affordable telecommunications and information and communication technologies (ICTs) are fundamental contribution towards achieving the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) action lines and the 2030 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). She added that digitalisation is not about bringing connectivity for people to receive money on mobile wallets but about teaching and understanding how can financial services be used to benefit other things like education and agriculture.
Ms Valeria Betancourt (Manager, Information and Communications Policy, Association for Progressive Communications) agreed that universal access is a key policy priority for many countries and one of the core pillars in achieving the SDGs. She mentioned that commercial networks are only expected to connect 60-70% of the population by 2015 which means that the SDGs will be affected by 2030. She added that it is now easier to deploy networks as there are emerging trends to address connectivity challenges, yet many governments are unaware of the benefits that can be achieved which include reducing the digital divide. Betancourt recommended the use of unlicensed spectrum for rural communities and reducing the tax burden for equipment used to build community networks.
By Sarah Kiden