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ITU: Regulators discuss impacts of COVID-19 on policymaking

Government and private sector leaders from 51 countries worldwide agreed in the ITU Digital World 2020 conference held Oct. 20-22 that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring a paradigm shift for policymaking in the information and communications industry.

The International Telecommunication Union, or ITU, is the specialized agency of the United Nations for ICT matters. The organization held its annual ITU Digital World virtually for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference was originally slated to happen physically in Hanoi, Vietnam, a month earlier, until the pandemic forced it to go online.

This year's conference had a theme, "Building the digital world together," and focused on the role of digital technologies in fighting the ongoing pandemic. This year also marks the rebranding of the event as "ITU Digital World" from the previous name "ITU Telecom World."

Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the ITU, mentioned in his opening message that the idea to change the name came from the leader of Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communications, Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng. According to Zhao, the rebranding highlights the expanding role of information and communications technology, or ICT, ministers and regulators, which now includes supporting the growth of emerging digital technologies.

Throughout the three days of the summit, representatives from countries worldwide expounded on this upgraded responsibility of governments and ICT regulators in response to the pandemic. This discussion complements our earlier report about the strategies adopted by the private sector in the early days of the health crisis.

Redefining an expanded role of telco regulators

Greece set the tone of discussions by arguing that current regulations should be compatible with the changes brought by the pandemic. According to the country's minister, a reevaluation of existing regulations is necessary to ensure that rulings put in place before the pandemic do not hinder the potential of emerging digital technologies.

Policymakers at the summit said the pandemic exposed the weaknesses of the ICT landscape, yet it also offered opportunities in the form of new, emerging digital technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence and cloud networks. The countries that invested in such technologies, according to the minister from Cape Verde, were the most successful in the fight against COVID-19.

The representative from Bangladesh supported this argument. He explained how the development of a national ICT strategy "Digital Bangladesh" that dates back to 2008 proved effective in mitigating the effects of the current pandemic. Ministers from AzerbaijanEcuadorKuwaitKyrgyzstanNigeria and Vietnam shared that they have adopted or are planning to adopt similar national digital roadmaps soon.

FinlandIran and Moldova have similarly drafted legislation to support best digital technology practices that emerged during the pandemic.

Focusing on network resiliency

Supporting new digital technologies depends heavily on reliable connectivity, so policymakers were in agreement that focusing on improving current networks is an urgent priority. In fact, 83% of the speakers and attendees said in one polling question during the summit that governments should make connectivity a priority in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opening up new spectrum to increase network capacity was one way Peru and Lithuania ensured the resiliency of their networks. Trinidad and Tobago even allocated spectrum to operators at no cost, with the condition of rolling out networks in rural areas. Jordan opted for temporary spectrum allocation and changes to its licensing regime during the pandemic.

MonacoPakistan and Peru streamlined their process of network infrastructure rollouts, specifically optic fiber cables and wireless towers, to prevent unnecessary delays in network coverage and capacity expansion. Kuwait and Indonesia also expanded their investments in undersea cables and satellites, respectively.

Network build-out, according to the ministers, should not deepen the digital divide between urban and rural areas. Countries such as Peru, therefore, encouraged infrastructure-sharing among incumbent operators to alleviate the financial burden of rolling out networks. Israel, meanwhile, gave direct incentives to operators to encourage network deployment in rural areas.

Supporting the continuity of key sectors

Amid the backdrop of increased network demand due to pandemic-related movement restrictions, the minister from Mexico brought the idea of developing a "rational internet usage strategy." According to him, there is a need to monitor current network traffic to ensure that all stakeholders in society get their fair share of network usage.

Government functions — especially emergency response and essential services — were a key topic for most policymakers in the summit, but so were the healthcare and education sectors. Afghanistan invested in telemedicine, while Kyrgyzstan gave special discounts to teachers and students to support remote education. Mongolia and Trinidad and Tobago digitalized government services.

Kenya mentioned the role of toll-free numbers and mandatory free data access in ensuring the continued delivery of essential services during the pandemic. Zimbabwe shared that they used digital technologies to disseminate information about the virus and debunk fake news or disinformation. Azerbaijan and Fiji made use of dedicated websites and mobile applications to deliver timely and fact-based public health information.

A number of countries enacted efforts to reduce the prices of devices and services to ensure that the aforementioned digital services remain affordable and accessible to as many people as possible. Ecuador reduced taxes on mobile and barred operators from cutting the service of consumers who fail to pay their regular bills, whereas Pakistan directly subsidized the cost of broadband for consumers.

Fiji, Moldova and some African countries chose to tackle the issue of affordability directly by supporting consumers' mobile payments and mobile loans.

Creating the path to recovery

While these developments brought on by the pandemic put a heavy burden of responsibility on governments and regulators, speakers in the summit said the private sector should not be left out. Private sector representatives agreed, saying that they need "the support of governments and regulators to maintain investment and growth for a brighter future."

Costa RicaLaos and Uruguay shared examples of fruitful public and private sector partnerships during the pandemic. Italy, Mongolia, Singapore and Spain showcased efforts of their governments in supporting the digitalization of small and medium enterprises, as well as helping private industries such as tourism recover from the financial disruption caused by the pandemic.

Cambodia and South Africa took the argument one step further, saying that international cooperation is necessary to lay the path towards recovery. Zhao echoed this sentiment, saying: "The time for operating in silos is over, and the new digital world must be built on cooperation."

ITU's Connect2Recover Initiative, launched in September 2020 with the support of Japan and Saudi Arabia, is a timely example of this call for international cooperation. The Connect2Recover Initiative aims to help less-developed countries tap into the benefits of digital technologies in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative will assess the needs of beneficiary countries and propose strategies based on policy tools developed by ITU over the years.

ITU has had several partnerships with the World Health Organization throughout the pandemic, such as calling on telecommunication companies to send health-related text messages to their users in April 2020 and developing artificial intelligence applications for health diagnosis, treatment and policymaking in September 2020.

Post-pandemic, the role of regulators will continue to shift. As US Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said at the 6G Symposium held Oct. 20-21, regulators will not be mere watchdogs, but more like "a negotiator or diplomat."

Wireless Investor is a regular feature from Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence's TMT offering, providing exclusive research and commentary.


This article was published by S&P Global Market Intelligence and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.

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