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Towards a brighter digital future for all: My message to the Plenipotentiary Conference featured image

Towards a brighter digital future for all: My message to the Plenipotentiary Conference

By Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General

On Monday, I had the honour of opening the 2022 Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Bucharest.

During this momentous occasion and I thanked all ITU members, partners and others for their successful and tireless work in promoting information and communication technologies (ICTs).

I was pleased to see Vice Prime-Minister Sorin Grindeanu of Romania, who came to PP-18 four years ago to present his country’s invitation to host PP-22.

Romania, one of ITU’s oldest and most active members, spared no effort in bringing us to this important moment. I thank our Romanian hosts for their hospitality and congratulate them on their country’s accelerating digital transformation.

Overcoming challenges

Delegates are meeting in a world that is seeing crisis after crisis, affecting lives and livelihoods everywhere.

Soon we will enter the fourth year of the pandemic. It has been a time of trial for all of us. We have been kept apart for far too long, but we have managed to stay the course.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted in his message of support to PP-22, ICTs matter more than ever – and so does ITU, as the UN specialized agency for ICTs.

This long and difficult period has seen ICTs become a huge part of people’s lives around the world. People everywhere now recognize and appreciate the power of technology – but the world expects more from ICTs.

For three weeks, as ITU Members discuss the organization’s future strategic plan and activities, Bucharest will become the ICT capital of the world.

Building on lessons learned

ITU has held a succession of major conferences over the past year.  

The sixth World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF-21) in December 2021, as well as the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) and the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in 2022, have helped us tackle critical ICT challenges while drawing lessons from the pandemic.

When COVID-19 struck, countries and economies moved online almost overnight, putting ITU’s mission and values front and centre.

ITU was well prepared for this moment. Despite conducting our business mostly virtually since 2020, we have delivered on all our core competencies, including important developments in international mobile communications.

We also organized two Virtual Consultations of Councillors, enabling us to act on ITU’s most pressing issues at the height of the pandemic. These unprecedented meetings would not have been possible without the leadership of the ITU Council – the 48-seat body, with seats allocated by region, that governs our organization during the four-year cycle between plenipotentiary conferences.

From network resilience and digital health to remote learning and digital finance, ITU’s COVID-19-response was swift and comprehensive. Those collective efforts have reinforced our close cooperation with partners inside and outside the UN system.

A flourishing family

The ITU family continues to grow, with sector members joining from all parts of the economy and of all sizes, including small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Our regional presence will soon be further strengthened with the opening of a new ITU Area Office and Innovation Centre in India.

On the global stage, ITU is highly valued for its contributions as a knowledge partner. I saw this first hand at meetings with BRICS communications ministers in July and with G20 digital ministers earlier this month. Going forward, I call on ITU members to continue deepening such collaboration with BRICS, G7,  G20 and other partners. 

The plan for our new headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, meanwhile, remains on schedule and on budget.

During the transition phase we are now entering, the lessons learnt from teleworking over the last few years will be of great benefit.

Our strategic compass

At this conference and beyond, we face the dual challenge of connecting the unconnected and driving the continued development of new technologies that will be central to addressing a convergence of global crises.

To this end, PP-22 delegates will approve new plans that will lay the foundation for ITU’s operational priorities and future activities.

The draft Strategic Plan for 2024-2027 identifies two clear goals: universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation.

While the new Financial Plan presented by the 2022 Session of Council is balanced, several mandatory activities remain unfunded. Together, we must find ways to resource these activities.

Both plans will serve as our compass during these three weeks of intense work. 

The road ahead

The decisions made at PP-22 will determine our collective direction and priorities in line with the evolving needs of our diverse global membership.

Delegates are examining key reports and documents, from the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) to ITU’s Global Cybersecurity Agenda to the roadmap for WSIS+20.

They are reviewing contributions and proposals on a range of critical and diverse issues, including connectivity, digital literacy, climate change, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and more.

ITU’s next management team will be elected in the coming days, as will members of the next Radio Regulations Board and the Member States that will serve on the ITU Council.

Shaping our digital future

A great deal of work lies ahead of us.

As we work together over the next three weeks to shape the future of the information society in both developed and developing countries, let us be mindful of the need to ensure new and advanced ICT technologies and services are distributed fairly and equally across the globe.

Today, according to ITU’s latest estimate, 2.7 billion people are still offline. Digital divides persist between developed and developing countries, cities and villages, men and women, and other  groups.

Equitable access to ICTs is not just a moral responsibility — it is essential for global prosperity and sustainability.

We need to work hard to bring everyone online as fast as we can.

Let us continue to build a stronger and more sustainable digital economy and a fairer and more connected society.

The world needs ICTs, and ICTs need ITU.

Based on Houlin Zhao’s remarks at the opening and first plenary session of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) on 26 September 2022.

Image credit: ITU/D. Woldu

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