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April 5th, 2020

ITU's Broadband Commission Pushes for COVID-19 Internet Access Capacity Boosts to fight COVID-19

A special, emergency, virtual meeting of the ITU's Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has adopted an Agenda for Action outlining immediate measures that governments, industry, the international community and civil society can take to shore-up digital networks, strengthen capacity at critical connectivity points such as hospitals and transport hubs and boost digital access and inclusivity, with the aim of strengthening collective response to the COVID-19 crisis now sweeping the world.

Built around three pillars: Resilient Connectivity, Affordable Access and Safe Use for Informed and Educated Societies, the agenda serves as a framework for the Commission's 50+ Commissioners and their organizations to share their own initiatives, make new commitments, and foster collaboration and partnership.

More than 100 representatives from around the world participated in the virtual meeting, which brought together stakeholders from international organizations, the tech sector, civil society and academia, including global CEOs, heads of agency, and leaders of tech and health industry bodies.​​​​

A special guest was UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Advisor, Fabrizio Hochschild, who made an impassioned plea to Commissioners and their organizations to enhance digital cooperation in response to COVID-19, and to do all in their power to combat misinformation and rising inequality, maximize access to relevant data for public good, and protect the millions of additional children joining the online community for the first time in order to connect to remote learning platforms.

Echoing these concerns, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF, said that this pandemic is doing what any big shock will do and is increasing the distance between those who have and those who do not. In addition to the devastating immediate effects of COVID-19, the secondary impacts on education, jobs and finances will continue to impact children as well as the world's most vulnerable, disproportionately in the years to come.

In his opening remarks, ITU Secretary-General and Commission Co-Vice Chair Houlin Zhao emphasized the vital importance of accelerating global efforts to connect the remaining half of the population still totally without internet access. He said that as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, making in-roads in the developing world and threatening all of humanity, immediate action needs to be taken to ensure no one is left behind. This unprecedented crisis shows that nobody is safe until all are  safe. It shows, with no ambiguity, that the full potential of broadband will not be unleashed until we are all connected.

Today, developing countries are home to the vast majority of the estimated 3.6 billion people who remain totally offline.

Representing Commission Co-Chair H.E. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Patrick Nyirishema, Director-General, Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, said the Commission was rising to challenge and "walking the talk" in its efforts to recommend rapid and tangible actions governments, ICT regulators, private companies and the international community could take, individually and collectively, to optimize the power of digital resources to combat the global health crisis. He noted that this pandemic has underscored the vital importance of broadband infrastructure to governments and communities around the world.

Dr. Carlos M Jarque, participating on behalf of Commission Co-Chair, Carlos Slim, stressed the need to harness technology for the common good. He added that no past epidemic has had access to today's broadband services. Broadband can save lives and mitigate the economic consequences of the pandemic. It is important to use networks to disseminate timely information to preserve good health; to support e-learning for the more than 1.5 billion students working from home; to train, by digital means, workers in confinement to increase overall productivity, and to promote e-commerce and digital services. In Latin America, millions are now using educational content made freely available by the Carlos Slim Foundation.

In a message delivered on behalf of UNESCO, Director-General Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Moez Chakchouk, noted that to date, 1.53 billion learners in 184 countries have been impacted by school closures. He encouraged the Broadband Commission membership to join the Global Education Response for COVID-19 that was launched on March 26, following the lead of the World Health Organization, ITU, GSMA, Microsoft, Facebook, UNICEF and the World Bank.

UNESCO DG Azoulay's message also emphasized "​a duty to start thinking about the world after COVID-19. The inequalities in access and skills need to be addressed, which have been so starkly revealed by the crisi, and are so damaging to those who are most vulnerable.

Last week, ITU launched the Global Network Resiliency Platform to help policy makers, regulators and industry players ensure that networks are kept resilient and telecoms services are available to all – and in particular, those in the health and education sectors – to the maximum extent possible.

While 53 percent of the world's population is now online, billions of people remain totally unconnected, unable to access emergency health information and vital government services, and unable to participate in the digital economy. The Commission's most recent global State of Broadband 2019 report also notes that many of those counted as 'connected' nonetheless struggle with very low bandwidth, infrequent access via internet cafés, and very high connection costs, compared with those in highly connected industrialized nations. ​