Broadband Commission Pushes for Global Internet Access

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By Emma Okonji with agency report

An emergency virtual meeting of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, which held recently in Geneva, the headquarters of International Telecoms Union (ITU), has adopted an agenda for action outlining immediate measures that governments and other organisations can take to shore-up digital networks.

The initiative is also expected to strengthen capacity at critical connectivity points like 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 of: Resilient Connectivity, Affordable Access, and Safe Use for Informed and Educated Societies, the agenda serves as a framework for the Commission and its organisations to share their own initiatives, make new commitments, and foster collaboration and partnership.

Penultimate 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.

Over 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 organisations to enhance digital cooperation in response to COVID-19, and to do all in their power to combat misinformation and rising inequality, maximise 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, the Executive Director, United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF), Henrietta Fore, said: “This pandemic is doing what any big shock will do, and 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, and 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, emphasised the vital importance of accelerating global efforts to connect the remaining half of the population still totally without internet access.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, making in-roads in the developing world and threatening all of humanity, we need to take immediate action to ensure no one is left behind. This unprecedented crisis shows that nobody is safe until we are all safe. And it shows, with no ambiguity, that we will not unleash the full potential of broadband until we are all connected,” Zhao said.

The Commission Co-Chair, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who was represented by the Director-General, Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, Patrick Nyirishema, said the Commission was rising to challenge and ‘walking the talk’ in its efforts to recommend rapid and tangible actions that governments, ICT regulators, private companies and the international community could take individually and collectively, to optimise the power of digital resources to combat the global health crisis. “This pandemic has underscored the vital importance of broadband infrastructure to governments and communities around the world,” he said.

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 launched on 26 March, following the lead of the World Health Organisation, ITU, GSMA, Microsoft, Facebook, UNICEF and the World Bank.