Generally, connectivity providers – including but not limited to fixed operators, MNOs, satellite providers, municipal networks and Internet service providers – have done an excellent job in the pandemic. Networks have held together; outages have been few and far between. Broadband speeds may have decreased for a time in the face of certain market features and the 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, broadband speed, quality of service, accessibility and affordability were accentuated. Those that had service had good service. Those without service in a world functioning increasing online were literally and figuratively disconnected. Absent participation in the digital economy, access to health services and advice, and to the latest COVID-19 information, was either limited or not available. In those circumstances, governments globally have recognized that there is an urgent need to extend connectivity to unconnected and vulnerable populations, with a view to addressing inequality, providing universal access and meeting broadband connectivity/digitization goals.
The pressure on countries, society and sector stakeholders is relentless: as much of Europe closed in 2020, the United States of America, parts of Latin America and South Africa were in the middle of a second wave. Even countries that had largely escaped the first wave (e.g. Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand) were battling outbreaks at the end of 2020. The consequent development and authorization, in record time, of the first COVID-19 vaccines and anti-virals raise both the promise of an 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 being a silver bullet. Complex logistical challenges, supply issues and vaccine scepticism in some countries will affect the roll-out of the vaccine, which is expected to reduce the number of COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations worldwide. Vaccine prioritization and limited availability could conceivably result in people having to wait another two or more years to be inoculated, particularly in emerging nations where remoteness, administrative weaknesses or lack of supporting infrastructure could impede distribution.
In this environment, the telecommunication/ICT sector can greatly contribute to the pandemic response by moving from connectivity, broadband services and productivity-increasing apps to facilitating contact tracing and helping to build high-quality digital supply chains using the IoT and GPS to distribute vaccines and critical medicines. In addition, there has been considerable sector investment in apps for vaccine prioritization and scheduling/follow-up (for example, many but not all vaccines require two shots, with the interval between the two ranging from 21 to 90 days), digital health credentials, digital ID and the like. The credentials involved, which may be linked to biometric technologies and are offered by companies such as Clear/Health Pass and CommonPass, offer the promise of restarting international business travel, family reunions and tourism. After that, artificial intelligence and big data will be used to compare vaccine performance, generally and regionally, between genders, age groups, etc.
Taken together, all of the above highlight the critical role played by ICT services and connectivity in helping all countries move to the new normal in the most efficient and timely manner possible.
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 – using 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 has or has not worked, and considers what measures need to be improved. It identifies good practices to include in national emergency plans, highlighting differences that may occur owing to market maturity and economic development, and the innovative regulatory measures needed to mitigate the risks for operators, businesses, governments and end users, including the most vulnerable populations.
The report also contains a checklist of the actions and regulatory measures (see Exhibit 2)required for better preparedness, to complement the ITU emergency telecommunication guidelines.
In addition to the work undertaken by ITU under the Global Network Resilience Platform (REG4COVID) and through its regional offices, many other global and regional organizations have published research, held roundtables and prepared guidelines or plans in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. They include:
It would be impossible to summarize all of this valuable work in this report, but it is important to examine the key policy, regulatory, economic, technical, commercial and societal issues relating to the telecommunication/ICT sector and its broader economic/societal significance. Such an examination brings to light a positive aspect of the pandemic: the fact that it fostered national, regional and international cooperation and collaboration within the sector and from the sector more broadly to address the complex interdisciplinary challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of the pandemic, that cooperation and collaboration will need to be nurtured and well supported.