Committed to connecting the world


BDT Director's Speeches

Mobile World Congress Ministerial Programme
Barcelona, Spain  25 February 2019






Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It’s wonderful to be joining you this morning at this consistently outstanding gathering of the world’s telecoms and tech community. 

Our theme – Transforming Society through the Internet of Things – is an apposite one. It’s 20 years since Kevin Ashton famously coined the term. It’s almost 15 years since my own agency, the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, first launched work in this area. But for many of those years it seemed there was a lot of hype but not much action.

All that’s changed. Early rudimentary applications in retail and logistics have given way to a profusion of increasingly sophisticated applications across a huge range of industries.

Plummeting electronics and communication costs have created a sector whose total annual economic impact is already estimated in the trillions of US dollars.

Why does this matter to me, as the newly-elected Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau?

Because IoT, combined with Big Data and AI, offers huge potential to improve quality of life in the developing world, which is home to an estimated six billion of the world’s seven billion people. We stand on the brink, not just of a veritable explosion in IoT-powered services, but of an inflection point in the types of applications we develop.

As with all new technologies, early IoT deployments mostly represented incremental improvements to existing business processes. More efficient, yes. But not what we could really call transformational.

No longer. Young people who’ve grown up ‘digital’ are thinking about old problems differently. And a lot of those young people live in the developing world.

When UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched his High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, he noted that: “The enormous benefits of digital innovation are crucial to building a more sustainable world.” Put simply: The world needs the SDGs, and the SDGs need ICTs.

A study by Cisco Systems and the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, of which ITU is a founding member, demonstrated the enormous potential for IoT linked to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The very low cost of many types of IoT sensors combined with the fact that over 95% of the global population is now covered by at least a 2G mobile signal makes IoT a very viable proposition to tackle a whole raft of chronic development issues.

A few simple examples: portable arsenic sensors are being deployed to monitor water quality and supply in rural areas. Cheap IoT technologies are providing real-time data on weather, giving farmers the means to control pumps to conserve water and optimize crop production. IoT is bringing better healthcare services to rural and isolated populations; collecting data on school attendance rates; empowering digital financial services for unbanked citizens; and delivering vital information for emergency response in disaster zones.

Some governments have been quick to recognize the potential – in Africa, for example, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa have all been early IoT adopters.

China and India, meanwhile, are well-embarked on massive Smart City initiatives that will help their rapidly expanding urban agglomerations better manage essential services for citizens.

At the grassroots level, we’re also witnessing a huge surge of entrepreneurial activity around IoT in the developing world, where many countries have young, digitally-literate populations. As IoT matures and proliferates I confidently predict that we’ll see many of the most exciting innovations come from this part of the world.

Enough about the technology and it’s potential. How do we ensure that potential is realized?

The flip-side of the IoT coin is government policy – which is where many of you in this Ministerial Programme come in. IoT cannot thrive without the all-important enabling environment that governments need to create, and to cultivate. IoT needs two solid building blocks – reliable sources of electricity, and modern, ubiquitous telecoms infrastructure.

Right now, neither of these is a given in many of the countries that stand to benefit most. For this reason, prioritizing infrastructure projects that will serve as the foundation for new IoT applications is urgent.

Infrastructure investment is capital-intensive. But new models like infrastructure sharing combined with more efficient network components and attractive financing options are making large-scale infrastructure upgrades a much more feasible proposition than they were ten years ago.

5G is also clearly going to be a major driver of IoT, with smart systems and spectrum sharing offering the potential of a one-thousand-fold improvement in efficiency. I’m looking forward very much to hearing UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed give her views on the development potential of 5G later today. From ITU’s side, ensuring 5G and IoT are given ample room to flourish will be an important focus of our World Radiocommunication Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh later this year.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Much of the future value we derive from IoT will come from the integration of separate, proprietary silos. But right now, the IoT sector still faces myriad challenges, ranging from interoperability, licensing and standardization issues, to privacy and security concerns.

Widespread use of shared standards will be key to low-cost, interoperable IoT, so continued cooperation between standards bodies and government support are both vital. ICT regulation, too, will have a huge impact on IoT deployment. Adopting best-practice policy in areas like licensing and spectrum management will ensure IoT systems can be developed cost-effectively and have the necessary bandwidth. 

Regulators also need to ensure proper safeguards for personal data to ensure that consumer trust is not eroded and that the technologies that promise to deliver so much social good do just that.

ITU’s Global Symposium for Regulators, to be held in Vanuatu in July, will include expert discussions on data privacy and protection issues, and I encourage those of you involved in ICT regulation to take an active part in these discussions.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

As the leader of ICT development at a UN agency, I am inspired and excited by the potential IoT offers to truly transform the world.
Not just – as we have so often seen the past – the lives of those in wealthy countries, but the day-to-day reality for every person on the planet.

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that “the spread of information and communication technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress.”

We have an enormous opportunity before us. If we succeed in getting it right, we could finally realize that dream of a fair, equitable and prosperous world for all.

Thank you.