The world has now passed an unfortunate anniversary – more than 12 months have elapsed since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This means that the need for continued investigation of the actual and potential responses of the telecommunication sector to the pandemic is unabated. Globally, the ICT industry has played a vital part in reducing the economic and social impacts of the pandemic, which has nonetheless 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. It investigates the national, regional and global responses of the regulatory community and industry stakeholders (policy-makers, national regulatory authorities, network operators/service providers, equipment manufacturers, digital players, governments, academics, international and regional agencies and civil society). It considers the critical actions and initiatives undertaken early in the pandemic and examines their efficacy and sustainability in the medium and longer term. It also considers the long-term adaptation of the telecommunication industry to the uncertain and still emerging “new normal”.
Governments and other stakeholders are all coming to understand that the COVID-19 crisis will not be short-lived. 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. The crisis has acted as both catalyst, upending legacy processes and effecting cultural change, and accelerator, driving online trends that may otherwise have taken a decade to emerge. There is also clear recognition of a greater need for cooperation and collaboration at regional and global level, as long advocated by ITU.
ICTs have an enormous role to play in helping society adapt to the dislocations caused by the pandemic. This enhanced role comes in addition to the already central part that digital technologies have assumed in driving innovation, digital disruption and economic growth and development, particularly in emerging economies. It is critical, then, that national governments, regional cooperative organizations and NGOs collaborate with industry stakeholders to ensure that digital technologies are used as effectively as possible to soften the economic burden of the pandemic and ease, to the maximum extent possible, the social dislocations associated with it.
This report identifies four main themes that should be addressed globally by regional and national governments supported by national regulatory authorities and industry stakeholders:
Exhibit 1: Digital responses to COVID-19
The huge shift to online activity means that social groups without affordable connectivity are now more disadvantaged than before the pandemic. The ability to participate socially and economically, to obtain education, medical and other government services, to communicate and to access e-commerce services is completely dependent on affordable connectivity.
Addressing the digital divide has important consequences in terms of economic efficiency and development, but it is primarily driven by considerations of equity, that is, providing equal access to opportunities to participate in the digital economy and society.
As businesses and governments shift their activities online, they will require faster and higher-capacity data services. Although there may be fewer people in central business districts for some time, the demand for data will likely stay high and continue to grow strongly. Particularly in emerging economies, it will be crucial rapidly to deploy 4G/5G coverage in urban and suburban areas, in order to support pandemic-driven data demand. In contrast to addressing the digital divide, digital deepening is primarily driven by economic objectives of increased efficiency, productivity, competitiveness and growth. It is not limited to access networks; backhaul, cloud infrastructure and international submarine/satellite capacity must also be properly dimensioned for the additional load and more.
The shift to digital processes requires a broad digital transformation in institutions and in business and government processes, including access to health care, financial services and government services. A critical component of this shift is to improve the digital literacy of less capable groups so that they are comfortable accessing services online. More difficult, but just as important, is cultural change in societies, government and companies.
The rapid increase in demand for services experienced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic means that additional capacity and resilience have to be built into telecommunication infrastructure systems and services. In a period of uncertainty, the returns for building additional “headroom” are increased.
Again, building digital resilience it not limited to access networks; backhaul, cloud infrastructure, international submarine/satellite capacity and ICT systems must be properly dimensioned for present and future crises and disasters.
Specifically in the short to medium term, as ICTs have a great capacity to facilitate the move to the new normal, government and national regulatory authorities should endorse and support, as part of the ICT sector response to COVID-19:
Exhibit 2 contains a checklist of government and national regulatory authority actions and regulatory measures recommended by this report and broadly consistent with the REG4COVID survey responses.
Exhibit 2. Checklist of actions and regulatory measures