Chapter 3: 2020, the year in the pandemic

2020: The year of the pandemic

1. Early ITU analysis: summary of Pandemic in the Internet age

In June 2020, the ITU published Pandemic in the Internet Age (hereafter the ITU COVID 1.0 paper), an analysis of the initial telecommunication sector response to the COVID-19 pandemic issued as a discussion paper for the twentieth edition of the Global Symposium of Regulators (GSR-20), the first to be held virtually.

The paper was divided into three sections: immediate responses to the pandemic; initiatives deemed to have helped facilitate global recovery; and speculation about what the “new normal” would be.

It suggested timelines for each phase, although, with the emergence of the second wave, many countries have been unable to progress past the emergency phase. Figure 1 below has been updated to reflect new developments, including in terms of contact tracing applications and the emergence of vaccines.

Figure 1. COVID-19 response timeline

Source: ITU/WPC, May 2020, updated December 2020
COVID-19 Emergency responses

The ITU COVID-19 1.0 paper highlighted the rapid and myriad ways in which stakeholders such as governments, regulators and operators had responded to the onset of the pandemic. Figure 2 provides a summary updated to March 2021 of the key emergency responses undertaken by sector stakeholders in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 2. Updated COVID-19 response timeline (updated to March 2021)

Source: ITU- WPC, May 2020, updated March 2021
Recovery phase

After considering different responses by stakeholders to the pandemic, the ITU COVID 1.0 paper outlined eight initiatives likely to facilitate recovery from the pandemic. Each initiative is briefly outlined below. Since the release of the paper, however, many parts of the world have been hit by a second or even third wave of COVID-19, negatively affecting the ability of governments, fixed operators, MNOs and other sector stakeholders to implement any of the initiatives.

1. Develop contact tracing apps

2. Accelerate the assignment of available globally harmonized IMT spectrum

3. Accelerate 4G/5G deployment and the transition from legacy 2G/3G networks

4. Deploy fixed wireless access and complimentary/substitute broadband networks

5. Facilitate innovative and future technologies to bridge the digital divide

6. Combat misinformation and COVID-19

7. Cybersecurity mechanisms

The new normal

The third section of the ITU COVID 1.0 paper made a series of predictions about the trends and technologies that might help societies adapt to the new normal. In many countries, however, the transition to the new normal has been hampered by the resurgence of the virus after the initial restrictions were lifted. A review of the key factors listed in Section 4.1 of the ITU COVID 1.0 paper prompts the following observations:

  • The resurgence of the virus has meant that working from home, webinars and online shopping remain commonplace and will likely persist until a vaccine is administered to a large majority of the population.
  • Contact tracing apps are far from ubiquitous: the issues of privacy outlined in the ITU COVID 1.0 paper continue to hinder their widespread adoption. Neither Canada nor the United States, for example, has a nationwide tracing app, which undermines effectiveness and gives rise to interoperability issues.
  • As predicted, the digital divide has received increased attention, particularly when students returned to remote learning during second lockdowns. For example, a December 2020 Microsoft survey of 5 000 teachers in the United Kingdom found that only 1 per cent of primary state schools were able to provide devices that pupils could take home, compared with 38 per cent of their private counterparts.[1] Figures in developing markets are even more concerning.[2]

The ITU COVID 1.0 paper also discussed the facilitation of more advanced smart city initiatives as a means of creating new jobs and more efficient, inclusive cities that could help mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Section 4.3 of the ITU COVID-19 1.0 paper noted that the move to a digital economy, which had already been a priority for many governments, would continue to accelerate, with increased investments in digital infrastructure as a way to mitigate the economic losses that resulted from lockdowns. Lastly, the paper noted the potential impact of the pandemic on competition in the telecommunication and digital sectors.

2. Assessment of new emergency and other initiatives on REG4COVID and beyond

While the great majority of new COVID-19 emergency and other initiatives notified on the REG4COVID website since May/June 2020 mirror earlier COVID-19-related ICT initiatives (e.g. providing additional bandwidth, increasing data limits, allowing more flexible IMT spectrum use, more flexible network management, etc. – see Appendix A), new categories have been notified.  They include the following:

•     Assistance with COVID-19 contact tracing. Although the ITU COVID 1.0 paper identified contact tracing as a likely part of the recovery phase, the rolling waves of the pandemic have made it more critical in many countries, where it now forms part of the emergency response.

•     Support for online education initiatives to accelerate remote learning and minimize disruption to students, while also addressing the digital divide (see Appendix B). Efforts in this area have been lent greater urgency as the pandemic continues for much longer than originally expected. The risk of harm to children and young people is rising and the impact on the current cohort of students could be long-lasting.

•     The adoption by markets worldwide of more ambitious digital strategies and plans covering a wider range of digital policies, local ICT innovations, civil society issues such as human rights and COVID-19-related laws.

What is not stated in the REG4COVID database but is critical to acknowledge is that, while some countries have made temporary IMT spectrum available to help meet immediate demand for mobile bandwidth, many (with some exceptions such as France) have continued or accelerated their release/auction of IMT spectrum even during the pandemic. As a result, at the end of 2020, 300 5G licences had been issued globally.  Likewise, between November 2019 and December 2020, the number of operational 5G networks launched worldwide more than doubled, from 51 networks in 27 countries/territories to 135 networks in 58 countries/territories. A total of 238 MNOs now hold licences issued for 5G bands worldwide.[3]

Fixed operators and MNOs in developed country markets, and now more globally, have acknowledged the need for additional bandwidth and the importance of more efficient spectrum use; they have brought forward plans to variously deploy more fibre and accelerate the move to 4G/5G.[4] While a number of operators are facing short-term negative pressure on revenues in the current economic conditions,[5] in parallel with an increase in costs (due to additional traffic volumes) as a result of COVID-19, they also have growing confidence in positive structural change in the long-term demand for broadband services post-2021.

Importantly, their investment plans have been accelerated by structural change in the sector, where the capital needs of new deployments are being met from non-operator sources.  As recently stated by Analysys Mason:

Non-traditional players will increasingly own telecoms infrastructure. There will be more structural separation in fixed networks, with many operators divesting fibre assets and with private equity investors piecing together wholesale FTTH networks. At the same time, web-scale companies [digital platforms] will expand their investments in international data centre interconnect, including undersea cables. Finally, owners of passive infrastructure such as telecoms towers will be looking to move up the value chain, including into interconnect and edge computing.[6]

3. Second-wave analysis: Summary of ITU’s recent COVID-19 research and data

ITU maintained a strong focus on global telecommunication/ICT sector responses to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020 and into early 2021. Below are some examples of its research and guidance.

The report entitled Economic impact of COVID-19 on digital infrastructure presents the views of a number of economic experts meeting at a roundtable organized by ITU. The experts’ views can be summed up as follows:

  • The economic recession will continue to exert an impact on industries, such as telecommunications, in the digital economy.
  • The pandemic has led to a spike in telecommunication network usage, which telecommunication networks have exhibited resilience to. Accessible ultra-broadband technologies such as FTTH appear better able to respond to these spikes in broadband traffic. It is considered this spike will become a fixture of the future.
  • Wi-Fi capacity has been stressed by an 80 per cent increase in uploads to cloud computing platforms, requiring additional spectrum to be assigned for unlicensed use (see Figure 3).
  • The pandemic has impacted the financial performance of digital infrastructure companies. Telecommunication operators could report annual negative revenue of up to 10 per cent. Some services will require 18 to 24 months to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.
  • Increases in traffic have led to accelerated capital expenditure to expand capacity. However, spending related to network modernization has been postponed, especially in emerging countries.
  • Looking to the future, alternative sources of funding may fill the gap that could emerge from governments or development finance institutions.
  • In terms of industry structure, current conditions in the digital economic sector could lead to industry consolidation, placing particular stress on low-cost carriers. The changes in industry structure pose a risk to the sector’s ability to enhance social and economic resilience, leading to a strong need for government protection.

Download the report to read more (p.14)

Figure 3. Global growth in Wi-Fi traffic (December 2019–April 2020)

Source: ITU

Connect2Recover is a global ITU initiative that aims to help countries recover from COVID-19 by expanding access to affordable and reliable connectivity. The objective of Connect2Recover is to provide the means of utilizing digital technologies such as telework, e-commerce, remote learning and telemedicine to support COVID-19 recovery efforts and preparedness for the “new normal” (and potential future pandemics). It further aims to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections while maintaining socio-economic activities.

In the words of the ITU Secretary-General, “The ITU, and the wider international community, is transitioning from aiding countries with their immediate response to COVID-19, to helping countries prepare for and adjust to a ‘new normal’.”

In achieving this, Connect2Recover seeks to improve connectivity by developing resilient broadband networks. The initiative enables ITU to continue reinforcing its core work and mission to extend connectivity to everyone, while simultaneously transitioning to COVID-19-specific response activities to aid countries.

A focus on Africa

The initiative will initially focus on Africa, to help the continent accelerate its digital transformation post COVID-19. Africa is the least connected continent and expected to be the hardest hit by COVID-19 in socio-economic terms. At the launch of the initiative on 9 September 2020, ITU noted that 21 out of the 25 least connected countries in the world are in Africa, with nearly 300 million Africans living more than 50 km from a fibre or cable broadband connection. Access to high-speed Internet thus remains out of reach for many Africans, hindering their ability to fully harness the potential of digital transformation.

Connect2Recover seeks to reinforce the ITU’s long-standing efforts to accelerate digital transformation on the African continent and lay the groundwork for the achievement of long-term development goals.

How it works

The Connect2Recover initiative consists of three key elements. It will:

  • develop a methodology for identifying gaps and bottlenecks in the use of digital networks and technologies at country level, to respond to and mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, to prepare for any similar future emergencies, and to enable recovery and readiness for the new normal;
  • engage this methodology with a view to helping countries assess needs, gaps and bottlenecks, and develop strategies in line with global best practices, to support recovery efforts and the new normal;
  • conceptualize and implement pilot projects to test technological solutions in line with national country strategies and policies.

Connect2Recover is expected to reinforce ITU efforts to promote digital transformation in Africa. Where appropriate, Connect2Recover may include other activities aligned with its objectives.

Source: ITU, Connect2Recover Initiative.

Among the many high-quality reports on the impact of COVID-19 on the sector, the A4AI Affordability Report 2020 is notable because its key recommendation on national broadband plans echoes a COVID 1.0 recommendation, namely that:

The new normal means greater coverage and faster broadband speeds. As such the approximately 164 countries which already have broadband plans as listed by the Broadband Commission should review those plans, say by 2021, in order to assess whether such plans are compatible with the new normal. As well as country coverage, the minimum broadband speed targets in such broadband plans ought to be adjusted in order to support increased demand for WFH and SFH.

Summary of the A4AI 2020 Affordability Report

The 2020 Affordability Report from the Alliance for the Affordable Internet (A4AI) examines the state of policy progress to bring down the cost of Internet access and points to the importance of effective national broadband plans (NBPs) in providing the conditions for Internet prices to decline. The report argues that COVID-19 has shown that Internet access is not a luxury, but a lifeline. It is therefore critical that the cost of connectivity does not exclude low-income groups. USD 428 billion in additional funding is needed over the next 10 years to ensure that everyone has quality broadband by 2030. Investments must be made in digital skills, content and enabling policy frameworks.

Broadband affordability

The ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission defines Internet affordability as “1 for 2”: 1 GB of mobile broadband should cost no more than 2 per cent of average monthly income. On average, prices in low- and middle-income countries have become more affordable, moving from 7 per cent of average monthly income in 2015 to 3.1 per cent in 2019.

While declining prices can be explained in part by general improvements in technology and other efficiencies, strong government policy is key to reducing costs and making sure that Internet access is affordable for all.

National broadband plans

As of September 2020, 174 countries reported having some kind of NBP, but the quality varies. NBPs should be the result of broad consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, have clear targets (with time-limits) to address a company’s most critical gaps, and come with funding commitments and a transparent review process. They can cover a range of issues, such as expanding Internet access, regulating the telecommunication market, guiding e-government services and fostering a digital economy.

NBPs should set ambitious targets for ICT development. Although NBPs focus on different things depending on the context, common objectives are expanding access in rural areas and building out 3G, 4G or 5G networks. NBPs need to balance aspiration and implementation, and are more likely to be effective if they are subject to regular review. NBPs also need to define the roles of the public and private sectors, and create a collaborative relationship between the two. For this reason, broad consultation and strong transparency practices are critical in forming and executing an NBP.

Malaysia, Colombia and Costa Rica have exemplary NBPs that identify transparent and measurable policy targets to create accountability and set out a roadmap to improve performance. One reason for the NBPs’ success was that they were the product of consultation. NBPs positively correlate with greater Internet affordability, as they can guide infrastructure and public investment, and generate market competition. NBPs also give the private sector confidence to plan on a longer-term basis and invest in coverage. This certainty also helps to lower Internet costs. Countries with an NBP that identifies clear, time-bound targets and activities for reducing broadband costs and increasing penetration tend to have lower Internet prices relative to average income.

Source: A4AI, 2020 Affordability Report.

4. New developments in the second wave

Summary of initiatives

As the pandemic persisted throughout 2020, governments, regulators, operators and NGOs/non-profits continued to develop and implement initiatives to assist citizens and consumers (see Figure 6 | Case study in Gambia: use of private intent data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, p. 19 of the full report). Many of the survey responses that were received subsequent to the release of the ITU COVID 1.0 paper described initiatives similar to earlier ones, such as the granting of additional spectrum to operators, increasing broadband capacity, discounting services and providing free access to online health services and e-learning.

Digital contact tracing

The survey results showed that governments and regulators are increasingly focused on contact tracing as a means of controlling outbreaks, particularly when a vaccine is unavailable. In Pakistan, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has been leveraging digital technologies to trace and track patients and COVID-19 clusters. Tracing apps are now used by governments in Australia, Canada, France and Hong Kong, China, to name but a few, although issues around privacy remain.[7]

In China, MNOs have also been enlisted to help the government with contact tracing. China Unicom, China Mobile and China Telecom draw on the nationwide telecom data analysis platform developed after the COVID-19 outbreak to provide users with a list of places they have visited in the last 14 days.[8] There is growing evidence of the value of digital contact-tracing technologies (see Figure 7 | Growing evidence of the value of digital contact tracing, p.20 of the full report).

Extension of temporary initiatives

Another development since the ITU COVID-19 1.0 paper was issued is the duration of government and operator initiatives. Some have been extended as the pandemic continues, such as in South Africa, where temporary spectrum access has been extended from 30 November 2020 until 31 March 2021. This reflects the unanticipated longevity of the pandemic. Other initiatives that may need to be extended include the discounting of services and relaxed payment terms by operators, as the pandemic continues to negatively affect employment rates and financial security.

Finally, NGOs and non-profits responded to the ITU survey, listing initiatives such as offering policy advice and mobilizing services to educate communities on COVID-19. For example, the World Wide Web Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in the United States but based in Switzerland, has introduced a set of policy briefs that seek to combat misinformation, increase Internet access worldwide and promote the use of data in a way that combats the spread of COVID-19 without breaching privacy laws. Initiatives of this kind are likely to continue as non-profit organizations seek to shape government responses.

Regional regulatory associations[9] have also played an important role in sharing information and promoting successful approaches.

Digital supply chains in relation to COVID-19 vaccines

Even as COVID-19 vaccines have begun to be administered, the logistics of vaccine distribution globally remain daunting. Vaccines need to be stored at certain temperatures to be useable.

For example, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70°C and is viable at standard refrigerator temperatures for up to five days only. This can present a significant logistical hurdle for distribution. Moreover, a diluted vial can be kept for only six hours before it must be discarded.[10] The Moderna vaccine is slightly less challenging in terms of transport and temperature: it is stored frozen at -20°C, but it keeps for a month at refrigerator temperatures.[11] The Gamaleya vaccine (Sputnik V) typically requires storage at -18°C but can be stored at 2-8°C for a month if freeze-dried.[12] In contrast, the Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sinovac (Coronavac)[13], Novavax (authorization pending) and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines require standard refrigeration.[14]

The United Nations recommends that governments consider the following when deploying COVID-19 vaccines, to avoid wastage and diversion: “assuring adequate storage capacity and conditions with a reliable cold chain adapted to the vaccines requirements, ensuring stock security, and deploying digital solutions to strengthen in-country supply chains and enable product track and trace capabilities”.[15]

Technology that monitors shipments and tracks vaccine location, temperature, humidity, vibration and acceleration could be critical to ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines are not rendered ineffective. Pfizer/BioNTech has created GPS-tracked coolers filled with dry ice for distribution (see Figure 8 | How Pfizer/BioNTech will ship the vaccine at ultra-low temperatures, p. 24 of the full report).Other companies (e.g. Cloudleaf) sell technology for monitoring shipments of vaccines. They use sensors attached to containers to track vaccine location, temperature, humidity, vibration and acceleration.[16] Similarly, Varcode, an Israeli start-up that makes smart tags that measure tags and temperature, has seen sales increase rapidly. The smart tags can track products throughout the supply chain.[17] Such technology, which harnesses IoT technologies, can be used to ensure vaccine efficacy, reduce waste and potentially save money.

Governments must begin to plan supply-chain logistics and service-delivery models, and to select administration sites. Their distribution plans will vary based on the storage and temperature requirements of the vaccine being provided, which could change as different vaccines are developed with potentially less onerous storage requirements. Each government’s particular distribution considerations will also vary based on geographic conditions and population distribution. Even in developed, largely urban populations, distribution is an immense challenge: the transport and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is considered the largest simultaneous global public-health initiative ever undertaken.[18]


[1] Microsoft, New report spotlights “inadequate” access to technology in English schools [blog post] (4 December 2020).

[2] See section 6.6 below.

[3] Global Mobile Suppliers Association, Networks Technology Spectrum database (update November 2019), and End of 2020 [webinar] (December 2020)

[4] See Ian Fogg et al., The Mobile Future: Predictions for 2021 and BeyondOpensignal, 21 December 2020: “Mobile users’ appetite for 5G will cause operators to work with regulators to move towards switching off 3G services on existing spectrum bands to increase the capacity available for more efficient 5G technology… But operators will need to be careful not to open up digital divide issues in markets where mobile users lack modern 4G or better hardware and continue to use older 2G or 3G handsets.”

[5] Roaming and prepaid revenues in particular were affected, especially in markets dependent on tourism.  For example, Thai MNOs are showing a drop of over 7 per cent in revenues (see AIS reports Q3 revenue decline on pandemic, Bangkok Post (7 November 2020)). Other markets have rebounded, however. For example, on 27 November 2020 Axiata Group reported third-quarter revenue increases for all operating companies in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, the only exception being its operating company Ncell in the Republic of Nepal.

[6] Analysys Mason Research, Telecoms, media and technology predictions for 2021 (London, United Kingdom, December 2020), p. 3.

[7] Recent developments in contact tracing can be found at Contact Tracing Apps: A New World for Data Privacy (Norton Rose Fulbright,December 2020).

[8] See Masha Borak, China fights the coronavirus with mobile location data, Abacus News Bites, 14 February 2020.

[9] A list is available here.

[10] Your Questions about Coronavirus Vaccines, Answered, Washington Post, 21 December 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sputnik V can be stored at 2-8 degrees Centigrade for two months, developer says, TASS, 5 February 2021.

[13] The potential vaccine could remain stable for up to three years in storage, which might offer Sinovac some advantages in vaccine distribution to regions where cold-chain storage is not an option (China’s Sinovac coronavirus vaccine candidate appears safe, slightly weaker in elderly, Reuters, 7 September 2020).

[14] Yvette Tan, Covid: What do we know about China’s coronavirus vaccines? BBC News, 14 January 2021.

[15] United Nations Development Fund, Supply Chain Management – COVID 19 Vaccines/Immunization Programme for Inclusion in the Health Procurement and Supply Chain Management (PSM) Roster of Experts and Senior Expert Consultants – UNDP Global Fund – Health Implementation Support.

[16] Rajesh Kumar Singh, COVID Vaccine is Bonanza for Digital Supply Chain Tracking Industry, Reuters, 17 December 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] McKinsey Global Institute, The COVID-19 Vaccines are here: What comes next? (9 December 2020).

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