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World Telecommunication and Information Society Day with ITU

Podcast episode 45

World Telecommunication and Information Society Day marks the founding of the International Telecommunications Union in 1865. But since 1969 has also celebrated the advances the industry has brought to society. Our Michael Hainsworth looks back at the last 50 years, but also to the future with The ITU’s Doreen Bogdan-Martin and learns that the biggest challenge for the next 50 years is closing the digital divide COVID-19 clearly exposed.

Below is a transcript of this conversation. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: World Telecom Day marks the founding of the international telecommunications union in 1865. But also every year since 1969 has celebrated the advances the industry has brought to society. It's an opportunity to look back, but also to look to the future. So much has changed over the last 50 years. We've seen the rise of the Internet, the mobile phone, and a growing awareness of the digital divide that's been growing ever since. Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the director of the Telecommunications Development Bureau at the ITU. It said that "past is prologue", so I began our conversation looking ahead by asking what she sees as the most significant evolution of the industry over the last five decades.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: Wow. the past 50 years, I would say, has seen a huge acceleration of both in technological advances as well as in the uptake of digital platforms and services. So in terms of what has been the most significant, maybe I start with mobile. It took 11 years to get to the first 1 billion mobile subscribers, but then it only took three years to reach 2 billion subscribers. And then roughly just two years for every additional billion to reach what we have today, which is over 8 billion subscriptions. And then of course is the Internet, right? So we waited 22 years to reach that 1 billion Internet users, but just five years later, we were already up to 2 billion. And in another five we reached 3 billion. And in just four years after that, we got to where we are today, which is that 4 billion. So I think in all of human history, no technology has ever spread so quickly as the Internet.

And I don't think that it's far-fetched to imagine that the digitization of our world could be as profoundly transformational for our lives, I would say also for our societies, for our economies as the dawn of organized agriculture or the industrial revolution. And again, if we look back over 50 years, I think I want to throw in there. The smartphone which I think has also effectively melded mobile and Internet together, and really put the Internet into the pockets of billions of people around the globe. So I think those are the innovations that have had really the biggest impact over the past 50 years.

MH: I think underlying what you've just said is the idea that we build these foundational blocks and we step back and we watch the world take these blocks and build remarkable new things that we never anticipated when we made the blocks in the first place.

DB: Absolutely, indeed. I think the creators of the Internet would say they never imagined and if they could go back and do things differently, probably they would have done the same thing, but it is quite phenomenal. And the pace at which our industry is progressing particularly when we look at what's happened during COVID I think lots more exciting developments will be on the horizon.

MH: Well, how would you describe the acceleration of digitalization during the Coronavirus pandemic?

DB: I think we saw acceleration rates things happening in the period of days, weeks, months that would have normally taken years to achieve because we really didn't have any choice, right? So we've seen this rapid rush to digital in countries and amongst populations. We pushed for accessibility to make things more affordable, to make things more practicable. But also at the same time, huge numbers of, of people. There's 3.7 billion people that were excluded from this whole digitization acceleration, so I think we have to keep that in mind. So while companies while organizations, while people, themselves, we all move very quickly to make adjustments to online working, online schooling, online shopping, it didn't happen for everybody else. So, we need to keep in mind that yes, in many ways that digital acceleration has been great, but I also think it's exposed some realities of what happens when you're digitally excluded. So, many groups have been hit much harder by the pandemic than others.

MH: I think it was the science fiction author, William Gibson, who had the line that goes, "the future is here. It's just not evenly distributed."

DB: I would say the future is digital. Indeed digital is not evenly distributed today. And we saw that so clearly throughout this pandemic. I think that digital can be the greatest equalizer that the world has ever known, but it's not today. The power and the reach of telecommunications and digital technologies have certainly evolved way beyond anything I think the ITU founding fathers could have envisaged back in 1865 when they created the ITU. You know, these digital networks and services have really become the foundation of our economies. And we use them not just to connect to friends, families, and colleagues, but, you know, for shopping and learning and everything, really. But that half of the world have never, ever connected to the Internet. And on top of that, we have hundreds of millions more that are struggling with limited levels of access. They're also struggling because it's too expensive, it's too slow, maybe it's too inaccessible.

And so it's not able to, to play any significant role in improving their lives. And so, these people have been, I would say, left behind during COVID and I think that's been a big wake up call for the world. And if it wasn't, I'm not sure what is. And if I could just maybe flash back to the early '80s, we did have this Maitland report, it was called the missing link. And I think at that time it was a wake up call to the world. We saw that access to a telecommunications network could actually foster economic, social, cultural development. And what we saw was three quarters of the world's people lived in countries where there were fewer than 10 fixed telephone lines for every 100 people. So we've made progress since then, yes, because we have a mobile signal practically everywhere costs have come down a bit, but we still have so much progress that we need to make because half the world's not connected. And many of these unconnected live in rural areas, they're often women and girls, the elderly, persons with disabilities. These are the groups that are particularly disadvantaged, and we need to do more to shrink that gap between the digital rich and the digital poor.

MH: ITU states its purpose is to connect all the world's people wherever they live in, whatever their means. So how do we more evenly distribute a connected future?

DB: That's a great question. And it is our mission from back in the day of the Telegraph, right in 1865 when we were created. And I think we can do, we can do much more. I would say first starting with governments we have a multi-stakeholder membership. We have 193 member States and 800 private sector companies, academic organizations, civil society, I think to to bridge that gap and to connect the world, we need the governments to set the right frameworks. We need those enabling regulatory and policy frameworks. We need the governments to take that leadership role. We need public private partnerships because governments alone cannot bridge the digital divide on their own. And so we need those partnerships in place. We need the right financing models. We have estimated that it will cost some $428 Billion to connect those 3.7 unconnected by 2030. But I think there's an urgency now as a result of COVID that we really can't wait. We need to get going now to work faster and harder to redouble our efforts, working with all stakeholders to close the gap.

MH: Well, the crisis has given governments worldwide and opportunity to throw a lot of money at a lot of issues made apparent by the virus. Which countries stand out in their policies towards closing that digital divide.

DB: Well I think unfortunately, "a lot of money" is exactly what many countries don't have right now. Right. I mean, we've seen the economic toll on governments we've even seen a big toll on our own industry. Some have made out well, others less well. You know, I think that that COVID has taken a pretty big toll on the public purse, I would say in terms of, of loss productivity, loss of taxation revenues and all of these other things. And as long as the virus continues to, let's say circulate and mutate, there remains a lot of uncertainty, which means that it's hard for many governments to embark on new initiatives, like large scale infrastructure projects. So I think ramping up on digital infrastructure rollout and building human capacity, cause that's another key piece, it's not just about the infrastructure.

It's also about the digital skills training that needs to be put in place. And I think those two pieces are essential in protecting nations from what we might call economic long-COVID. So we need to build those factors in and really think about resiliency to combat potential future emergencies, right? Cause there, there may be others. And for us that really does mean that we have to work closely and cooperatively with, as I said before, stakeholders from across the whole ICT ecosystem and the whole investment community, because we've got to get those innovative financing strategies right to be able to help governments to build that connectivity, they need as quickly as possible.

MH: Well, that sounds like PPP (public private partnerships). Is there a role too, for those in closing that digital divide?

DB: Absolutely, no doubt. Well I believe let's say very passionately that universal affordable access to ICT is the catalyst that we need if we're going to achieve the 17 sustainable development goals. I think that connectivity piece is going to re-energize efforts. And so we need to be focusing there and it's not going to be a single player that can do that. It really needs to be in the spirit of these PPPs, as you mentioned. I'll give you a couple of great examples. We have this smart village effort that we've been championing with the government of Niger. It's a great example because we've got the government leadership at the top, as well as the community involvement, engagement and leadership at the grassroots level. And so the project was constructed, linking different villages throughout Niger, looking at the infrastructure rollout, but then not stopping there.

You bring the connectivity to the village and then what do you do when you get that connectivity? And so that's where the demand piece comes in because it's not just about the infrastructure. It's about stimulating that demand and ensuring that the applications that are developed actually meet the needs of the community. And so these applications have been developed with the communities, with the villages in local languages, and these communities are able to benefit from healthcare information, from education, from agriculture and much, much more. So that, I think a great example of bringing the whole stakeholder system together and a kind of top leadership, as well as the grassroots piece coming together, the other really exciting partnership example that, that we've, we've kind of gone beyond the sort of proof of concept stage is our Giga Initiative with UNICEF.

So we have this bold ambitious project to connect every school on the planet, to the Internet and to connect every young person to information, opportunity and choice. So we started back in 2019 pre COVID and of course, during COVID we saw the incredible impact crisis that the pandemic has had on the education sector and on the 1.6 billion learners that were impacted. And so we have ramped up our Giga efforts and we're looking at connecting learners, connected schools as hubs for the community. The program is structured around four main pillars. So the first is mapping. So mapping every school on the world and understanding which schools have connectivity and which ones don't. Connecting those schools, that's the technology piece, what are the best technology options in different rural communities, in different areas. The financing piece, what are the innovative, sustainable financing options that can explored?

And then the fourth piece is the empowerment. So what happens when you connect the school, when you connect the learner, what are those applications that can be used to empower these learners? So it's really exciting. We've got 19 countries on board so far and we're looking forward to continuing to ramp that up throughout the year and beyond. And then the other piece I'll mention is on the digital gender divide. Again, this is a piece that's been exposed, I think clearly throughout this pandemic, there is a digital gender gap. So there are fewer women and girls online. That also means that girls that were deprived of access to education throughout this pandemic are further impacted than, than boys. We also have this skills gap. Girls are less likely to have the digital skills needed to take advantage of connectivity.

And then the third piece of the gender gap on the digital front is the lack of women's representation in the tech sector. So we're trying to tackle those three big challenges and we've put together a global partnership it's called "Equals". We lead that partnership with UN women, GSMA, and other partners. And we're really trying to bring different stakeholders together to address each of those gaps and to close the digital gender gap. And then of course another great example of PPPs is the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, where we brought together 50 thought leaders representing governments, industry, the UN we're thrilled to have the CEO of Nokia with us in that effort. And that's all about advocating for closing the digital divide. Advocating for affordable and meaningful access to broadband, and to really champion digital cooperation around the globe.

MH: To come back to something you mentioned off the top: the roadmaps that the telecommunications industry had pre-COVID, they were five years out. They needed to be completed in months though, following the initial surge in COVID cases. What did the industry learn from that accelerated ramp-up?

DB: Yeah, that's a great question. And indeed many companies, many countries had their roadmaps planned. They had them funded. And I think COVID sort of turn things on their head. I mean, turn things upside down. In some cases we have seen that infrastructure rollout plans have had to be adapted and changed because investments priorities had to be adapted to cope with demand spikes. And in some cases we had up to 800% demand spikes in terms of the network in terms of network maintenance, in terms of network extensions. On our side, as the ITU, we quickly set up something that we call "Reg for COVID". So we set up this, this platform where we invited the stakeholders. So regulators, policy, makers, operators community network providers to come to us and tell us, you know, what are you doing to maintain and to extend connectivity?

I think what was interesting was we saw lots of innovation. We saw lots of agility, flexibility, and perhaps most importantly, we saw lots of comradery in a sector that is normally highly competitive. And so our industry understood that that digital lifeline, I mean, it really was a lifeline - it was UN secretary general himself said last summer, it was sort of that connectivity was almost a matter of life or death - and so we all came together to try to get that connectivity out there and to maintain it. We saw creative things in the use of spectrum. We saw creative things in terms of infrastructure sharing. We saw creative things in terms of operators removing, you know, sort of data caps and giving extended periods to payback phone bills. And, you know, I think lots of learnings came out of that. And what we need to do now is really figure out which pieces of that exercise can we take forward so that we don't in a couple of years, hopefully not, face another global emergency. And we say, well, why are we still in the same situation that we are today? You know, I really think that that sense of urgency shouldn't go away when get through this pandemic, we really need to come together and close the divide.

MH: I was just going to ask if you felt that the lessons that we learned through the course of that ramp up in digitalization could actually be applied to closing that digital gap.

DB: Definitely. I mean, there, there are so many lessons. I would say, one great example in the space of Universal Service Funds. We have many countries that have Universal Service Funds. Those funds, in some cases in some countries have been sitting dormant for some time. It was great to see many countries access their funds, use it to connect schools, use it to put up WiFi hotspots in different locations to be able to use it to digitize things that weren't digitized before. So many, many learnings that we need to carry forward. Definitely. And we have on the ITU side, an annual event, our global symposium for regulators, that's coming up at the end of June. And that's an opportunity where we will bring back to our constituents a whole assessment of what's been done. What are the learnings and how can we take these things forward to continue to close the digital divide?

MH: You mentioned programs like Equals and others. What are you excited for the remainder of 2021, aside from, you know, getting your COVID shot?

DB: I get my second dose next week and I can't wait. I would say on one side, I'm really excited about ramping up this Giga effort, as I mentioned. I think what we have seen with the education crisis and the connectivity crisis we have clearly understood, and I think the world has recognized, that those two powerful forces coming together can really be transformational for the world. So I'm excited to continue working with UNICEF with other partners we have some new donors that have just come on board and really to scale that and to make sure that it's sustainable. So that's on the top of my agenda for this year. The other big piece that's on my agenda is our World Telecommunications Development conference which is supposed to take place in November because of COVID we're looking at a postponement to next year, but that's a critical conference for us because our membership comes together. The world comes together once every four years and decides on a digital development roadmap. And so this conference, again, I don't want to say thanks to COVID, but because of COVID has taken on new relevance and new importance, because it's all about digital and closing the digital divide. So we are well-advanced I think, in our preparatory process, and I'm really looking forward to having a very concrete results-focused outcome for that conference that can make a difference in closing the gap in the years ahead.

MH: When you mentioned that there's this digital divide, and it's not just a digital divide geographically and socioeconomically, but also by gender. It made me think of the fact that my 14 year old daughter just got her first smartphone, and it's been 52 years since first World Telecom Day. Tell me what you think her world looks like 50 years.

DB: That's a tough question. Almost a trick question. You know, it's difficult to answer because I think, you know, if we look back 50 years ago, I don't think we could have predicted what the world would look like today. I mean, I remember growing up and when cable TV came out, you know, it was such a big deal. I remember also when the extra long phone cords came out. I don't know if you remember this?

MH: Right! Oh yeah, because you needed your privacy from the phone that was in the kitchen. You had to go to the dining room.

DB: Absolutely! Exactly. So we had the sort of 12 foot you know, cord and I was able to take it from the kitchen, go down the steps in the basement and through another door. And every couple of months, my mom would have to replace the cord because it was so twisted from myself and my siblings stretching it. You know, and those were things when I was young, I was like, "wow, you know, this is so cool!" And, of course, I remember my first mobile, my car phone that was, you know, a fixed device with a cord in my car. And so it is really hard to, to predict what the future's going to look like. I mean, clearly everything's going to be digital. I think it's the young people - it's your 14 year old daughter who needs to be telling us, you know, what, what she thinks and also be engaged in the discussions, now.

I think we need to be more proactive about bringing the voices of youth into our work. It's something we have recently launched in the ITU. We have a new "Generation Connect" effort, so we're really trying to tap into those young minds, to work with young people, to help us shape the programs of the future and also benefit from these programs. So I don't think I answered your question, but it definitely we're up for an exciting digital future and we need to have a digital future that's safe and inclusive and we all need to work together to get well during this

MH: Doreen, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you for your time. And, and to your point about your 12 foot cord on the kitchen phone. Everything old is new again because I now have a 12 foot USB cable connected to the wall to keep my phone charged. Cause I'm using it so much. Thank you again for your time.

DB: Thank you so much. Michael has been great.

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