Mr Pichet Durongkaveroj (Minister of Digital Economy and Society, Thailand) stated that, for the past two and a half years, Thailand had embraced a tracks strategy to bridge the digital divide, which includes infrastructure divide, human divide, innovation divide, and social divide. Durongkaveroj added that government was committed to ensuring availability, accessibility, and affordability of broadband Internet to the inhabitants of over 5000 villages. To date, he cited, 20% of the villages were yet to be connected to broadband, but the government harboured a political will to ensure they were covered. He further revealed that as chairman of the ASEAN community, he envisioned promoting 26 cities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to work together for the smart city concept.
Mr Hipólito Ondo Envo Bela (Vice Minister, Ministry of Transport, Post & Telecommunications, Equatorial Guinea) highlighted the agenda for Equatorial Guinea will be implemented within the next six years. This agenda was in line with the 2020 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) agenda, the 2030 global sustainable development goals (SDGs), and the African Union (AU) 2063 agenda. Bela added that this plan involved various stakeholders from different sectors, and it was based on four main strategies: inclusion, administration, electronic administration, and training. Bela stated that his government had built a backbone terrestrial network covering the entire nation’s territory, as well as a fibre optic undersea cable, which linked together various islands of the country with the rest of the world. Bela disclosed that Equatorial Guinea offered free interconnection for schools, healthcare centres, and leisure centres.
Mr Lasha Mikava (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, Georgia) mentioned that despite Georgia having 70% GDP penetration, 15% of the market is still not covered by broadband. In order to cater to this marginalised populace, he said, the Georgian government had embraced the concept of public-private partnerships. He cited the Internet Society’s community network concept as one of the partnerships that was pivotal in connecting the unconnected through radio waves and wi-fi, especially in the areas where fibre optic is still very difficult to access. Mikava added that with the help of the World Bank and the European Commission, Georgia had completed a diagnostic of the Georgian broadband status, a factor that culminated in a strategy and national plan. He emphasised that this was likely to impact legislative changes since Georgia still didn’t have laws regarding the access of telecom-ready infrastructure. Additionally, he revealed that Georgia had a voucher program, whose overarching aim is to stimulate learning, and equip residents with digital skills capable of spurring them to offer online marketplace and hospitality services.
Mr Vincenzo Aquaro (Chief E-Government Branch, Division for Public Administration and Development Management, WSIS Action Line Facilitator, UNDESA) pointed out that there was a deadline for SDGs, a factor that prompts the call to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet to everyone by 2020. Aquaro called on the need to enhance capacity-building support, which would significantly increase the availability of high quality, timely, and reliable disaggregated data.
Ms Wanda Buk (Undersecretary of State, Ministry of Digital Affairs, Poland) revealed that Poland had a national broadband plan in place. The plan envisions covering five million households that were yet to be included in the fibre optic network. She added that for the last three years, Poland has been able to connect two million people to the Internet, through an initiative that had won a WSIS award in 2018. Buk revealed that in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the country was preparing content for the education network platform, which would ensure access to secure transmission, secure data, and help verify what kind of data children have access to.
Ms Salma Abbasi (Chairperson and CEO, eWorldwide Group) lamented that cultural and social divides were factors that prevented girls and women from having access to the Internet. Abbasi felt there was need for greater consultation and inclusion with governments and societies, to protect the most vulnerable.
Mr Christoph Steck (Chief Policy Advisor, Telefonica) maintained that the Internet and connectivity were in the hands of the private sector. Steck gave example of submarine cables, access networks, and routers, all of which are usually private investments. He believes that the future of providing connectivity to all will be through a kind of innovative business-driven approach. He further revealed that over the past five years, Telefonica had invested one million euro per hour to bridge the digital divide. He mentioned that the current investment of networks is based on dense population areas, and as such, Telefonica is not capable of doing it in sparsely populated low-income areas.
Ms Constance Bommelaer de Leusse (Senior Director of Global Internet Policy and International Organizations, ISOC) reiterated that partnerships with governments and civil societies were keys to accelerating the expansion and the development of Internet for all. She echoed sentiments of Mr Lasha Mikava (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development, Georgia) explaining that ISOC was focusing specifically on developing community networks, by the people for the people, with the aim of tackling the digital divide through an open multistakeholder approach.
Ms Christine Löw (Director, UN Women Liaison Office in Geneva) decried the continued technology divide in regard to women and girls. This prevents them from accessing, using, and creating the digital tools on same level as men and boys. Löw added that the digital gender divide is sustained by existing gender inequalities and, for those with careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the under-representation of women in workplaces. Löw cited that only 35% of higher education students studying STEM subjects are women. She recommended that governments should promote the right to education of women and girls, address negative gender norms and stereotypes, support women and girls in diversifying educational and occupational choices, and that technology should become gender transformative.
Ms Atsuko Okuda (Chief of the Information and Communication Technology and Development Section of IDD, UNESCAP) explained that there were disparities in broadband subscription amongst its members, half of whom, she said, were from Asia-Pacific. Okuda added that the other half (i.e. a fourth of the global fixed broadband subscriptions) was concentrated in three countries of East Asia: China, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. Okuda argued that with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, big data, and cloud computing, which were all bandwidth intensive, it would prove difficult to bridge the digital divide without first addressing broadband connectivity. Okuda pointed out that, based on analysis and research, UNESCAP had conducted a proposal which sought to set up a regional co-operation framework for addressing the digital divide both within countries and between countries.
By Bonface Witaba