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WTPF-21 lays policy foundation to leverage tech for sustainable development

by ITU News

The world’s transition to a digital economy depends on scaling up a wide array of new and emerging technologies, along with associated policy and regulatory environments in the field of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

WTPF-21 – the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, held this week in a virtual format – looked at artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, big data, over-the-top services (OTTs) and other new and emerging technologies, with a focus on opportunities, challenges, and policies to foster sustainable development worldwide.

Organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Forum sought consensus among ITU membership, which includes 193 Member States the private sector, academia, civil society, and the technical community, on key issues and themes, including how to mobilize new and emerging tech for sustainable development.

Recognizing complexities

To start the proceedings, a report from ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao outlined five non-binding WTPF-21 draft Opinions:

  1. Enabling environment for the development and deployment of new and emerging telecommunication/ICT services and technologies to advance sustainable development
  2. Affordable and secure connectivity in mobilising new and emerging telecommunications/ICTs for sustainable development
  3. Digital literacy and skills for inclusive access
  4. New and emerging technologies and services to facilitate the use of telecommunications/ICTs for sustainable development
  5. Use of telecommunications/ICTs in COVID-19 and future pandemic and epidemic preparedness and response

Each Opinion gave rise to an array of timely questions for governments, industry, and other key stakeholder groups to consider.

“The ITU family came together at WTPF-21 to discuss the new and emerging technologies that show so much promise for all humanity,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao during the opening plenary.

“The output of this Forum sends a clear, strong and positive message to the world that these technologies and ICTs in general are essential to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and address some of the world’s most pressing opportunities and challenges, from COVID-19 to the digital divide.”

“The report by the Secretary-General is a balanced text recognizing the complexities of the current digital ecosystem,” explained ITU Deputy Secretary-General Malcolm Johnson.

“The key public policy questions at its core provides a solid framework for discussion at WTPF-21, which will help build a digital future where no one is left behind and where opportunities have no boundaries.”

Fabio Bigi, who chaired the Informal Experts Group preceding WTPF-21, said: “I am confident that this sixth WTPF will adopt consensus opinions to help drive sustainable development for all.”

Creating the enabling environment

To make good on the promise of new and emerging technologies for sustainable development, governments and industry must work together to accelerate and shape enabling environments, which encompass policies that foster infrastructure investment, business plans and funding models for digital transformation.

For tech to flourish, enabling policy environments should also promote investment and innovation through competition, capacity building, transparency, flexibility, and active participation by all relevant stakeholders.

Opinion 1”invites [ITU’s] Member States, Sector Members and other stakeholders to work collaboratively” to create the enabling environment for tech and sustainable development.

Key questions put to Forum participants included:

  • which technologies would be “key enablers” for the global transition to the digital economy;
  • how ITU’s membership could contribute, keeping in mind the current and future needs of both developing and developed countries, as well as all segments of the population;
  • how to promote whole-of-government, multi-stakeholder collaborative policy approaches that are forward-looking, flexible, and evidence-based.

Roberto Mitsuake Hirayama, a regulatory specialist at Brazil’s Anatel and Chair of the WTPF-21 Working Group for Opinions 1 and 2, explained: “When we foster investment and deployment and give innovation the space to thrive, and when the policies and regulations of each country are suited to those tasks, the whole sector thrives – and addresses greater challenges.”

Working group discussions unearthed a number of key priorities for WTPF-21 delegates, including:

  • Exploring frameworks that reflect evolving business models and would help to create a fair and conducive enabling environment for stakeholders promote economic development.
  • Facilitating innovative access to finance, including through public-private partnerships.
  • Promoting infrastructure sharing models to reduce the costs of telecom and ICT-related investment costs.
  • Encouraging innovation and locally based entrepreneurship in the provision of complementary connectivity solutions.

Ensuring connectivity is affordable and secure

While the potential of new and emerging technologies was broadly acknowledged as a means to accelerate sustainable development, participants also discussed how to ensure those technologies are affordable and secure, in an increasingly digital world where cybersecurity concerns are on the rise and 2.9 billion people have yet to access the Internet.

WTPF-21’s Opinion 2 focused on ensuring affordable and secure connectivity.

“We are a pivotal moment of the digital transformation, with opportunities for us all,” said Natalia Vicente, Director of Public Affairs at the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) and Vice-Chair of WTPF-21 Working Group 2. “Collaboration is the way to ensure a sustainable model to benefit the maximum number of citizens at an affordable price.”

Even where access to the Internet and other ICTs is available, vulnerable groups are frequently deterred by costly devices or unaffordable pricing of data, along with social norms that can bar access to women and girls, persons with disabilities or specific needs, and other vulnerable groups.

“The crippling cost of digital exclusion is real and growing, jeopardizing the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use the technologies and services at the heart of this Forum, combined with the power of multistakeholder partnerships, to re-energize sustainable development and drive faster and more inclusive connectivity everywhere. Let’s seize this opportunity with both hands,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau speaking at the opening of Working Group 1.

Reinforcing digital literacy and skills

A lack of digital skills is a barrier to widespread, inclusive tech uptake. Several WTPF participants put the focus on transparency and protecting users and consumers as key aspects of “digital literacy and skills for inclusive access,” which form the core of Opinion 3.

New skills are needed for the digital economy — requiring investment in ICT teaching, education, and training with emphasis on marginalised groups and persons with specific needs. Experts also underlined the need to protect personally identifiable information (PII) and mitigate vulnerabilities as technologies evolve.

Leveraging new and emerging technologies and services

WTPF delegates concurred strongly on Opinion 4, focused on new tech for sustainable development.

By facilitating the use of telecommunications/ICTs, new and emerging technologies can drive digital transformation across numerous industries in line with the SDGs.

“New and emerging technologies and services must be widely distributed and shared fairly. Technology is always going to evolve, but we must stay true to our mission and vision – that is, building human potential, building trust, and enabling technological advances on a global scale,” said Chaesub Lee, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. 

Enabling policies can harness opportunities and address challenges at the national, regional, and international levels, with the full involvement of stakeholders, especially from developing countries.

Enhancing pandemic preparedness

As discussions continued, several experts called for a stronger focus on finding innovative ways to mobilize new and emerging tech in response to COVID-19 and future pandemics.

“The role of this event is particularly important in the time of the pandemic,” said WTPF working group chair for Opinions 3 and 4 Lidia Stepinska-Ustasiak, Head of Social Policy at the Office of Electronic Communications in Poland. “Effective future-oriented policy approaches will not only support the achievement of the SDGs but also help economies and societies in the implementation of recovery plans.”

Working group chair James Paterson of South Africa’s Department of Communications and Digital Technologies agreed, encouraging delegates “to learn from the experiences we have endured throughout the pandemic, work as a global community to see how ICTs have been used to respond.” Paterson added how more must be done to “protect jobs, support education and health services and continue to build our economies and societies in an inclusive manner, even during a pandemic.”

“Government and industry are called upon to keep using the momentum gained during these challenging times to accelerate digital transformation and extend it to the almost 3 billion people who are still offline around the world,” said Mario Maniewicz, Director of ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau. “Going forward, our priority must be to bridge the digital divide and make access to communications affordable for everyone.”

While international policy guidance discussed at WTPF is sure to help mobilize uptake of new and emerging technologies through a two-year consensus-driven process, the forum avoided being overly prescriptive.

“As ITU members, we owe it to ourselves to do our utmost to better harness new and emerging technologies and ICTs to accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Ghana’s Minister of Communications and Digitalisation Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, who chaired WTPF-21.

“Because when poverty is on the rise, when our children’s education is on the line, when our planet is suffering and when our health is impaired with existing and new diseases, we believe that these technologies can and will make a big difference.”

“These Opinions will now provide guidance and support to ITU Member States in formulating future policy, and our task now ahead is to work towards implementing them.”

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