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Pandemic in the Internet Age

From second wave to new normal, recovery, adaptation, and resilience

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Executive summary

Get a quick insight into the report's main findings

Introduction

Learn the context of the report and how it can be useful for you

2020: The Year of the pandemic

Dive into the data collected by ITU since the pandemic began and see how the ICTs/Telecom sector responded

Emerging into the new normal

Get to know the four major themes we identified to tackle long-term consequences of COVID-19

ITU REG4COVID survey results

See what ICT regulators and other stakeholders around the world said about keeping communities connected

Case studies

Read the experiences of 9 countries focusing on addressing the digital divide post-COVID-19

Conclusions and recommendations

Save our Checklist of Actions and Regulatory Measures to support you in preparing the future

Introduction

2.1. Pandemic and the digital drive for recovery

The world has now passed an unfortunate anniversary –  more than 12 months have passed since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Several vaccines have appeared and their public distribution has begun with more vaccines arriving through 2021. Uncertainties concerning their efficacy and the capacity of global vaccine production and distribution systems remain, however, and, at the time of writing, the timing of the world’s emergence into a post-pandemic future remains uncertain. This means that the need for continued investigation of the actual and potential responses of the telecommunications sector to the pandemic is ongoing. Globally, information and communications industries have proved themselves to be vital resources for reducing the economic and social impacts of the pandemic.[1] Nonetheless, COVID-19 has caused the greatest worldwide economic and social disruption since the Second World War.

This report builds on earlier work by ITU and a range of international institutions and investigates responses by the regulatory community and industry stakeholders (policy makers, national regulatory authorities, network operators/service providers, equipment manufacturers, digital players, as well as government, academia, international and regional agencies and civil society) nationally, regionally and globally. It considers the critical actions and initiatives undertaken early in the pandemic and examines their efficacy and sustainability for the medium-and longer term. It also considers the long-term adaptations of the telecommunications industry to the uncertain and still emerging ‘new normal’.

Governments and other stakeholders are all coming to understand that COVID-19 will not prove a short-lived crisis – even with successful vaccines and their global distribution - that we will eventually leave behind, and it is increasingly clear that COVID-19 has been a uniquely powerful game-changer, with digital connectivity now at the top of every nation’s agenda.  It has been both a catalyst to change legacy processes and effecting cultural change as well as an accelerant to online trends that may have taken a decade without its arrival.  There is also a clear recognition of a greater need for cooperation and collaboration at regional and global level, a theme that has been advocated extensively by ITU.

Generally, connectivity providers – including but not limited to fixed operators, mobile network operators (MNOs), satellite providers, municipal networks, Internet service providers have done an excellent job in the pandemic.  Networks have held together; outages have been few and small in number; broadband speeds may have decreased for a time given certain market features and pre-emptive measures adopted by operators to ensure continuity of service on their networks but overall connectivity providers have offered resilient services during a challenging 2020.

Having said that, the gaps that existed before the pandemic in terms of coverage, in terms of broadband speed and quality of service (QoS), and in terms of accessibility and affordability were accentuated.  Those that had service had a good service.  Those without service in world increasing online were literally and figuratively disconnected.  Without participation in the digital economy income, access to health services and advice, and the latest COVID-19 information was either limited or not available.  In such circumstances, Governments globally have recognised the urgent need to extend connectivity to the unconnected and vulnerable populations and that such steps are critical to address inequality, provide universal access and meet broadband connectivity/digitisation goals.

The pressure on countries, society and sector stakeholders is relentless because as 2020 closed much of Europe, the USA, parts of Latin America and South Africa were in the middle of their second wave.  Even countries which had largely escaped the first wave in Japan, South Korea and Thailand were battling outbreaks at the end of 2020.  In this context, the authorisation and release of the first COVID-19 vaccines developed in record time, and anti-virals to combat those infected) raise both the promise of effective way to combat the pandemic, and an entirely new set of challenges for countries and the ICT sector.

The availability of these first vaccines is far from a silver bullet.  Complex logistical challenges, supply issues and scepticism about the inoculations in certain countries will play a part in the rollout of the vaccine, which is expected to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalisations globally due to COVID-19.  Priorisation and limited availability of such vaccines could conceivably result in another two or more years wait to be inoculated for citizens, particularly in emerging nations where remoteness, administrative weaknesses or lack of supporting infrastructure could impede distribution.  Uncertainties also remain concerning the  efficacy of the vaccines in the real world especially in relation to the duration of immunity and the level of protection against emerging COVID-19 mutations. Given the rapidity of vaccine development, uncertainties remain about long term adverse .

In such an environment, the telecommunications/ICT sector can greatly contribute to pandemic responses by moving from connectivity, broadband services and productivity increasing apps to facilitating contact tracing and helping build high quality digital supply chains using IoT and GPS for distribution of vaccines and other critical medicines.   In addition, there is considerable sector investment in apps for vaccine priorisation and scheduling/follow up (for example, many but not all vaccines require two shots with the interval between the two injections being 21 and 90 days), digital health credentials, Digital ID and alike. Such credentials which may be linked to biometric technologies, and are offered by companies such as Clear/Health Pass[1] and CommonPass,[2] offer the promise of restarting international business travel, family reunions and tourism.  After that we can expect artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to compare the performance of the various vaccines, generally, in regions, between genders, ages etc and whether it is more effective in preventing infections.

All of the above cumulatively highlights the critical nature of ICT services and connectivity to facilitate all countries moving to the new normal in the most efficient and timely fashion.

It is in this context that this second ITU report “Pandemic in the Internet Age: From second wave to new normal, recovery, adaptation, and resilience” attempts to identify – with the results of a global survey and desk research – long term regulatory and policy trends for the different groups of stakeholders.  It looks at both immediate and longer term responses, examines what works and what does not work, and what measures need to be improved. It attempts to identify good practices to be considered for inclusion as part of national emergency plans, highlighting differences that may occur due to market maturity and economic development, and identify innovative regulatory measures needed to mitigate risks for operators, businesses, governments and end users, including their most vulnerable populations.

A checklist of actions and regulatory measures required for better preparedness to complement the ITU emergency communications guidelines has also been developed.

2.2. Global economic and sector responses to the COVID-19

In additional to the work undertaken by the ITU under the Global network Resilience platform (REG4COVID)[1] and through its regional offices, many other global and regional organisations have published research, had roundtables, prepared guidelines or plans in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.  They include inter alia:

  • The ITU Guidelines for national emergency telecommunication plans (NETP);
  • Guide to develop a telecommunications/ICT contingency plan for a pandemic response;
  • Broadband Commission – material (Agenda for Action; Community responses to COVID-19; State of Broadband Report 2020; BB Commission Manifesto; Case Studies);
  • ITU-D Study Groups Webinar results related to COVID-19 response;
  • GSR’s Chairman’s Report – COVID-19 related including the Regulatory Associations meeting report;
  • ITU Report: Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Digital Infrastructure - Report of an Economic Experts Roundtable;
  • UN75 GGF Partnership Dialogue for Connectivity - Accelerating Digital Connectivity in the Wake of COVID-19;
  • AI for Good Webinar Series Episodes related to the COVID-19 outbreak;
  • The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response – ICT Case Repository;
  • ITU/World BANK/WEF/GSMA’s call for action; and
  • ATU’s call for harmonized actions and other ICT Regulatory Associations related material.

While summarising all of this valuable work is not possible in this paper, the wide examination of the key policy, regulatory, economic, technical, commercial and societal issues relating to the telecommunications/ICT sector and its broader economic/societal importance is important.  It highlights the positive of the pandemic – that is in fostering national, regional and international cooperation and collaboration within the sector and from the sector more broadly to address the complex interdisciplinary challenges which COVIC-19 pandemic has wrought. That cooperation and collaboration is something, post the pandemic, which needs to be nurtured and well supported going forward.

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