Quarantine measures due to COVID-19 resulted in an acceleration in the adoption of digital services and in the expansion of broadband infrastructure. With the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband—for those who had it—became a vital necessity for working and learning. Many predict this will have a notable impact not only on digital infrastructure but also global behaviour going forward. There will be a transition to flexible working for those whose job characteristics allow it. Millions of people got their first taste of digital applications such as online shopping, access to government services and remote health consultation, and this is likely to continue.
However, for a smooth transition to a more connected post-pandemic world two things need to occur. First is a conducive regulatory environment for broadband services that will attract the vast investment needed to support a more digital world. Second are strategies and policies to enable broadband adoption and accelerate digital inclusion. The pandemic brought into sharp focus the digital divide with many unable to work from home or take part in remote education due to a lack of adequate skills, Internet access, appropriate devices and the means to pay for it.
Steps to overcome these challenges include:
- As the pandemic recedes, working from home will continue to persist in some form. Although experience during the pandemic suggests that networks handled the increase in traffic generated from households, they were not originally designed for this. It is likely that with permanent flexible working in place, demand will increase for connectivity. It will be necessary to leverage different technologies, working together to deliver the best services to all and to enable people to work from anywhere in the world and on the move.
- Governments wishing to reduce the cost of broadband access can resort to a variety of measures, from adopting policies that incentivize the provision of more affordable services, to promoting public-private partnerships as appropriate and creating an enabling investment environment. Governments may also consider reducing sector specific taxes or subsidizing access to free or low-priced devices, as well as free connection in public administration facilities such as libraries, hospitals or schools, or at other public hot spots. Measures to ensure affordable access to universal meaningful connectivity will ideally form part of more comprehensive broadband strategies.
- COVID-19 disrupted educational systems across the world. Millions of school children were unable to continue their studies due to a lack of household equipment for remote learning. Unlike work from home flexibility that will survive post-pandemic, most educators agree that online learning is not an equivalent substitute for the in-school presence of children. Nevertheless, home connectivity is an important complement for remote learning in the event of future pandemics, school closures for other reasons (e.g. inclement weather) or studies and homework outside of school. Governments and the private sector need to take steps to ensure that all students have the necessary digital environment to support remote learning.
- COVID-19 provided a sharp illustration of limitations of the online economy in many LMICs. Many struggled due to a lack of online retail platforms for goods and services and ability to make digital payments. This is a reflection of a wider digital malaise in some countries where governments have struggled to diversify and digitize their economies in a meaningful way. One reason is the ICT sector has often been stuck in a silo with a single responsible ministry and little interaction with other sectors. Awareness and expertise about digitalization has remained limited in many sectors. The pandemic is a wake-up call and could accelerate digitalization across sectors of the economy similar to the SARS outbreak in China in 2003 which led to a surge in e-commerce. Now that governments are aware of how ICTs helped mitigate the economic disruption caused by COVID-19, there is an opportunity to move rapidly to spur digital adoption across all economic sectors. Another reason to accelerate digitalization is that countries with better broadband infrastructure were more successful in mitigating the economic consequences of the pandemic.
The surging demand for nation-wide digital transformation is clearly beyond any single ministry or government’s task alone, but requires the participation and contribution from various sectors and stakeholders. ITU’s Fifth Generation collaborative regulation (G5) is an acknowledgement that ICT policy not only needs to keep up with technological change, but it also needs to integrate all sectors. It recognizes that regulation has to be a collaborative process across institutions and stakeholders to foster a digital economy. Not only does this involve cooperation with ICT-related institutions such as broadcasting, data protection and cybersecurity agencies, but also with ministries responsible for sectors such as finance, energy, transport, health, education, environment and economic development. In this way, awareness can be raised, expertise shared and quick movement towards the digital economy accomplished.
- Protecting personal data is critical. Many data protection frameworks are inadequate, lacking clear implementation processes such as a data protection authority; they often do not require user consent for personal information to be used nor do they specify controls for transferring personal data abroad. Efforts are needed for countries to create adequate data protection laws or update their existing laws to bring them into conformity with best practices.
- ICT companies need to do everything they can to reduce and eliminate their operational GHG emissions. This includes adopting concrete targets in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations for minimizing the rise in temperature to 1.5°C.
- There is a need for massive investment in broadband to bring it up to speed with the new post-COVID-19 world. Higher capacity and lower latency is needed to support videoconferencing for those who can work from home as well as remote learning in the event of future pandemics or other disruptions to school learning. The pandemic also magnified the existing digital divide and need to build out broadband infrastructure where there is no access. To facilitate this, governments could allocate sufficient amounts of spectrum on a competitive basis, prioritizing the larger benefits of investment in connectivity rather than the collection of high spectrum fees. In addition, governments could make licensed spectrum available on a flexible use and technology-neutral basis and not dictate technologies/architectures to be used.
- Measurement of global advocacy targets would benefit from greater clarity and scope. More can be done to collect and publish granular, reliable and gender-disaggregated data related to infrastructure deployments as well as Internet adoption and use in accordance with international guidelines and standards. This can include the disaggregation of Internet use by MSMEs or vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities or the elderly. Moreover, more research to better understand the context, circumstances and needs of individuals and MSMEs not yet using the Internet can be conducted or supported. These data and insights are key in setting policy priorities, targets and budgets. Measurement of broadband metrics merits more focus as a result of the pandemic and the likely aftermath. Indicators that were not prominently analysed before have now become more relevant. This includes household indicators such as the percentage with computers and Internet access or Internet-enabled handsets. Both merit additional granularity such as the type of computer the household has as well as the type of Internet access and breakdowns by household demographics. Collection of asymmetrical broadband speed information is also important given the new significance of upload speeds.