Accelerating digital connectivity in the wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 has laid bare the realities that underpin our globalized economies, with a key lesson that not being connected to the Internet increasingly means missing out on employment opportunities, education, health care, public services, as well as the power of information and digital transformation. It means, in short, being shut out of full economic and social participation in the modern digital world.

The impact of digital connectivity is felt beyond the individual level. Evidence emerging from research suggests that countries with robust connectivity infrastructure can mitigate up to half of the negative economic impacts resulting from pandemics. Investment in digital technologies is an integral part of a sustainable recovery given the critical role of ICTs in reducing humanity’s carbon impact and managing ecosystems.

What has been done so far?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ITU and others have launched a number of initiatives to enable and support collaborative action. Such initiatives include the Broadband Commission’s for Sustainable Development Agenda for Action for Faster and Better Recovery; the World Bank, ITU, GSMA and World Economic Forum (WEF) COVID-19 Crisis Response Digital Development Joint Action Plan and Call for Action; WEF’s public-private cross-sector EDISON (Essential Digital Infrastructure and Services Network) initiative; our Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID); and the recently launched Connect2Recover initiative to help less connected countries strengthen their digital infrastructures and ecosystems.

A number of broader connectivity initiatives have also found new relevance in the new paradigm, including EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age; the GIGA initiative of UNICEF and ITU to connect every school to the internet, and every young person to information, opportunity, and choice; and the Global Connectivity Implementation Plan under the recently launched UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

Partnership Dialogue for Connectivity

To maximize the impact of all these different initiatives, we must avoid duplicating the efforts of already established fora but ensure that those efforts are tracked, bound together and amplified.

This is the exact purpose of the Partnership Dialogue for Connectivity.

I am extremely grateful to the representatives of providers of digital infrastructure and services, together with international organizations working to promote digital connectivity, who responded to our invitation to come together.

This group of stakeholders, namely Aarti Holla Maini, EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA); Robert Pepper, Facebook; Laurent Bodusseau, GSMA; Julie Kearney, Loon; Ben Wallis, Microsoft; Patricia Cooper, SpaceX; Sue Allchurch, UN Global Compact; Sunita Grote, UNICEF; Isabelle Mauro, World Economic Forum and I, have worked together to agree on a framework and objectives for collaboration in accelerating digital connectivity, which we are delighted to have presented today at the UN75 Global Governance Forum. The Forum has given us the impetus and framework to develop this Partnership Dialogue. This is a great example of how a fit-for-purpose global governance (and the UN specifically) can deliver in this new world.

What have we agreed?

First, we have identified specific actions we will take ourselves. Namely, we will seek to amplify each other’s efforts in pursuing initiatives to accelerate access to broadband connectivity for everyone. We will also support others by leveraging our experiences as well as best practices. To that effect and on the basis of REG4COVID, the Global Network Resiliency Platform, we will develop a repository of good practices and case studies to help policymakers, regulators and other stakeholders to accelerate the deployment of broadband access in their respective countries.

We also agreed on the importance to involve and drive the sustainability of local digital ecosystems. Local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are key engines of economic growth and will have an essential role to play in the recovery from the pandemic. It is therefore crucial to support their connectivity and digitalization.

Last but not least, we highlighted the role of responsible business practices in securing a genuinely sustainable recovery. We think it is important to encourage adherence to the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact, including the guidance they provide in such areas as human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. Initiatives such as the SDG Ambition by the UN Global Compact and UN Global Compact Action Platform on Sustainable Infrastructure for the Belt and Road Initiative to Accelerate the SDGs provide useful platforms to facilitate these objectives.

A call to governments

While efforts of all stakeholders are crucial in bridging the connectivity gap, governments play an especially critical role in enabling and facilitating such efforts.

That’s why we are calling on national governments to:
- Give due recognition to the crucial role of network infrastructure and services in underpinning the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic;
- Ensure that their digital development plans are updated;
- Take a holistic, multi-sectoral and pragmatic approach to expanding connectivity, recognizing the key role that all digital technologies play in the provision of health, education, financial and public services; the role for supporting infrastructures, especially energy; and the fundamental need for digital inclusion to be an integral part of an overarching social and economic inclusion;
- Reduce existing and refrain from erecting new and unnecessary barriers to investment in, development, deployment and use of digital infrastructure;
- Support digitalization efforts of local businesses.

What’s next for the Partnership Dialogue?

We are proud of the fact that such a key group of connectivity stakeholders to have come together for this effort. In order to have the necessary impact, however, a much broader collaboration is necessary. For this reason, we invite other stakeholders, especially development finance institutions, global and regional organizations, national governments and other potential partners join us in the effort to build back better with broadband.

We also recognize that many forthcoming challenges in accelerating digital connectivity, especially in the wake of a global health pandemic, will be new. Innovative thinking, willingness to experiment, openness to learn, broad collaboration and a strong vision are needed to address those challenges.

These are the key ingredients to ensure that we respond to the threat of this pandemic, but also ensure that our common goals, especially the Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030, are achieved. The COVID-19 pandemic did not leave us any choice but to apply this new course of action. I believe, however, that lessons learned by necessity will prove crucial not just in building back better now, but in achieving a more prosperous world, with a UN better suited to serve it. A more connected, resilient, prosperous, inclusive and sustainable world is certainly worth this effort.