More than a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, amid relentless global demand for broadband services, the
Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has reaffirmed its call for digital cooperation, innovation with information and communication technologies (ICTs), and collaborative approaches to secure universal connectivity and access to digital skills.
State of Broadband Report 2021, released during the meeting, outlines the impact of pandemic policies and calls for a concerted, people-centred push to close the world's persistent divide. In the world's least developed countries (LDCs), no more than a quarter of the population is online.
"Digital cooperation needs to go beyond access to broadband," said H.E. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Co-Chair of the Commission. “We also need to close the gap in the adoption and use of affordable devices and services, in accessible content, and in digital literacy."
More than 50 Commissioners and special guests, representing government leaders, heads of international organizations and private sector companies, civil society and academia, affirmed that people-centred solutions must be at the heart of building a sustainable path towards universal broadband.
Commission co-Chair Carlos Slim, Founder of Carlos Slim Foundation and Grupo Carso, added: “To achieve our universal connectivity goal, we need to work together. We need to build a digital future that is inclusive, affordable, safe, sustainable, meaningful and people centred. We need to support infrastructure and to deal with affordability and relevant content to ensure usage. For that to happen, it requires concerted efforts."
Connectivity for sustainable development
Annual Fall Meeting, held in a virtual format, underscored the need to accelerate digital connectivity to fulfil the United Nations Agenda for 2030, centred on 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
“The absence of digital skills remains the largest barrier to Internet use," noted Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and co-Vice Chair of the Commission. “Digital education must therefore be as much about gaining skills as about developing the ability to think critically in order to master the technical aspects and be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood."
Media and Information Literacy curriculum, launched in Belgrade, Serbia, in April, provided a key tool to boost skills," she added.
A newly released Commission report on distance and hybrid learning cites the need to foster digital skills along with expanding broadband infrastructure.
State of Broadband 2021
Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Commission co-Vice Chair, warned that the pandemic had further exacerbated the global digital divide.
“I'm concerned that digital technologies and services, which have proven so essential during the crisis, are still out of reach, unaffordable, irrelevant, too complicated to use, or not secure enough for far too many people around the world," he said. “I was pleased to see that the
State of Broadband report calls for additional investments to advance progress towards universal access."
Commissioners – recognizing the increasing role of digital technologies in all facets of economic activity – shared current strategies to incentivize investment in digital literacy, connectivity, and skills. Discussions spanned joint actions, initiatives, and hands-on, replicable solutions to boost broadband connectivity, drive capacity and policy development, and address persistent disparities of access, affordability, adoption and use.
Need for targeted collaboration
Other key speakers included H.E. Minister Abdulla Shahid, President Elect of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly; Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman and Founder of the World Economic Forum; and Maria Francesca Spatolisano, Interim Officer in Charge at the Office of the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Technology.
In view of the massive investments needed, the group exchanged views on collaborative and innovative financing approaches to make it “worth the risk" to fund universal connectivity.
In the world's 46 LDCs, only 25% of the population is online, noted Courtney Rattray, Under Secretary General and High Representative for the LDCs, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS) and a newly appointed Commissioner. He urged the Commission to prioritize connectivity in in those countries ahead of the Fifth UN Conference on the LDCs, set to happen in Doha, Qatar, in January 2022.
The Commission heard progress reports from its current Working Groups on key topics:
- 21st Century Financing for Sustainable Development
- Epidemic Management
- Digital Learning
- Working Group on Virtual and Data-Driven Health
Newly launched Working Groups will tackle additional issues in the months ahead:
- Smartphone Access
- AI Capacity Building
- Data for Learning
New Commissioners welcomed at this fall session include the Honourable Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, H.E. Eng. Majed Sultan Al Mesmar, Director General of the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates; Professor Mercedes Aráoz, former Vice President and Minister of Peru; and Dr. Rumman Chowdhury, Founder of Parity AI., as well as Courtney Rattray of UN-OHRLLS.
Note to editors
Founded in 2010, the Broadband Commission promotes a multi-stakeholder approach to digital cooperation by seeking to align Internet and connectivity growth to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Commission is recognized for the
publication of the annual
State of Broadband report and more than 30 thematic research and advocacy reports addressing such topics as digital health, education, online safety and inclusion of vulnerable populations.
About the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development
The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development was established in 2010 by ITU and UNESCO with the aim of boosting the importance of broadband on the international policy agenda and expanding broadband access in every country as key to accelerating progress towards national and international development targets. Led by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim Helù of Mexico, it is co-chaired by ITU's Secretary-General Houlin Zhao and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. It comprises over 50 Commissioners who represent a cross-cutting group of top CEO and industry leaders, senior policymakers and government representatives, and experts from international agencies, academia and organizations concerned with development. Learn more at: www.broadbandcommission.org
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), driving innovation in ICTs together with 193 Member States and a membership of over 900 companies, universities, and international and regional organizations. Established over 150 years ago, ITU is the intergovernmental body responsible for coordinating the shared global use of the radio spectrum, promoting international cooperation in assigning satellite orbits, improving communication infrastructure in the developing world, and establishing the worldwide standards that foster seamless interconnection of a vast range of communications systems. From broadband networks to cutting-edge wireless technologies, aeronautical and maritime navigation, radio astronomy, oceanographic and satellite-based earth monitoring, as well as converging fixed-mobile phone, Internet and broadcasting technologies, ITU is committed to connecting the world. For more information, visit www.itu.int
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established in November 1945. UNESCO's founding constitution underscores that since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defences of peace must be constructed. UNESCO seeks to build peace through international cooperation in education, the sciences, culture and communication. Its programmes contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015. For more information, visit