A year into the crucial Decade of Action intended to achieve 17 key Sustainable Development Goals, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in setbacks. In response, the commissioners of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development advocated the need for innovative financing mechanisms, impactful partnerships, bold decision-making and holistic approaches to capacity and content development to make the best use of broadband Internet.
Gathering at their spring annual session, more than 50 commissioners, who comprise government leaders, heads of international organizations and private companies, civil society and academia, discussed how to leverage digital cooperation to build an inclusive post-COVID digital future for all.
“This pandemic makes the urgency of universal connectivity very clear,” said Carlos Slim, Co-Chair of the Commission. “We have nearly half of the world population without the right connectivity. We know what to do and how it can be done. The financing of fixed fibre and wireless networks should be done by the carriers, the tower corporations together with the newcomers. Governments and regulators should be the promoters of connectivity development with a plan for connectivity for everyone everywhere.”
The Commission’s Co-Chair, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, said: “As work and school life has increasingly migrated online, the contrast between the digital haves and have-nots is even more blatant. Now is the time to forge new partnerships for universal broadband and scale up the investments required to ensure digital equity.”
The commissioners discussed multiple forms of digital disparity, including access to Internet, affordability, literacy, and the relative lack of content in local languages. In calling for digital solutions and services tailored to meet the needs of users, communities and businesses, they noted that digital access and skills are essential to bring people, communities, businesses and classrooms online, and to ensure that everyone can benefit equally from digital opportunities and services.
Special messages were delivered by H.E. Mr Volkan Bozkir, President of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and H.E. Mr Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the Education Commission on the importance of global connectivity and education in leaving no one behind and build an inclusive post-COVID digital future.
“Thanks to the Commission’s efforts over the past ten years, we have managed to establish a vision of Internet connectivity as a global common good,” noted Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Co-Vice Chair of the Commission. She underscored that the ongoing pandemic “has reminded us how inequalities are amplified by unequal access to, and mastery of, digital technology. This is especially true for educational inequalities. Of the 1.5 billion learners unable to attend school at the peak of the crisis last year, around 46 per cent lived in homes without Internet access.”
The UNESCO Director-General highlighted the Broadband Commission’s focus on digital learning, addressing online disinformation, and the launch of UNESCO’s new Media and Information Literacy curriculum in April this year.
The commissioners also reviewed progress achieved by the Commission’s current working groups on the 21st century financing models, digital learning, and epidemic management, and they proposed a new working group on digital health, virtual health and care.
“The recognition of broadband’s value has never been higher,” said Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General and Co-Vice Chair of the Commission. “The Broadband Commission can use this moment to lead the effort to build the world back better in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”
The Commission welcomed seven new members at its spring annual session: Roberto Sánchez, Secretary of State for Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructures at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation of Spain; Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC); Ziyang Xu, Executive Director and CEO of ZTE Corporation; Mauricio Ramos, CEO of Millicom; Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group; Ralph Mupita, CEO of MTN Group and Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat.