GENEVA, Switzerland — As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes how we work, keep in touch, go to school and shop for essentials across the world it has never been more important to bridge the digital divide for the 3.6 billion people who remain offline. That’s according to top experts from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), who outlined the implications of the new coronavirus pandemic during a digital briefing on Tuesday to correspondents in Geneva.
“Digital new society already came into our life, but we never imagined that we could be forced to stay at home and to use the digital worlds to connect ourselves and make our business continue. So that is something absolutely new”, said the ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao.
He praised workers in the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector during the pandemic, described by another ITU official as the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.
“We should also recognize that ICT services and ICT networks are not so easy to manage, because nobody could imagine, under such circumstances, that traffic could to some extent triple”, Zhao said, referencing the massive surge for videoconferencing and smartphone call capacity that the health crisis has engendered. One important challenge has been the massive shift in broadband usage in urban office buildings, toward the suburbs and rural areas, where people are now telecommuting from their homes.
“Additional spectrum has been identified,” said Mario Maniewicz, director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, adding that such resources can be used by countries “for new technologies that can help provide coverage at affordable prices to underserved communities. These technologies are both satellite and terrestrial and can cover large areas, and they promise to enable affordable broadband access in rural and remote areas.”
Maniewicz added that now spectrum has been allocated, governments must make use of these existing allocations to enable telecomms providers to do their job of servicing the acute “universal need” for broadband access.
The call for universal access has never been more keenly felt, said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU’s telecommunication development bureau: “ There’s a lot of talk about defining the new normal in the post-COVID-19 world and for me ‘new normal’ needs to include broadband access for all.”
With 1.5 billion children currently out of school, she pointed to the desperate need for digital partnerships such as the one ITU is currently undertaking with Children’s Fund UNICEF, known as the GIGA initiative, to ensure that schooling everywhere can be provided through online platforms.
At the same time, she said, the ITU saw a need to accelerate the provision of global online child protection guidelines, which are expected to be issued in the next two weeks. A worrying development has been the massive spike in cyber-crime that has accompanied the shift to digital in the COVID-19 crisis.
“The COVID-19 crisis has also resulted in a huge surge of online criminal activity”, said Bogdan-Martin. “Bad actors have been exploiting fear and uncertainty, and my own cyber-security team has set up an online repository to really help countries be able to protect their network, businesses, and of course their users. And then linked to this is, of course, the risks for children.”
One leading international telecoms company, Vodaphone, was cited as having reported a 300-fold rise in phishing attacks through its systems since the pandemic started.
For all the dangers that current scenario presents, and for basic challenges such as the unavailability of mains electricity, the ITU officials remained optimistic about the opportunities that are afforded by the present crisis to leverage new-found political will to deliver connectivity for all.
In addition to expanding access, the ITU has been studying different technologies that have been submitted to it for contact-tracing during the pandemic, although Dr Reinhard Scholl, the deputy director of the organization’s telecommunication standardization bureau, said that the world would have to wait for the “dust to settle” before recommendations could be made as to which works best.
The ITU’s top official, Zhao, said that as the world contemplates the post-COVID-19 future, the global development of 5G networks would be essential to deliver such services as remote surgery and autonomous driving technologies.