The Journey to Digitalization of Nations

Published on 9th January 2018

The Commonwealth represents 2.4 billion people, coming from large advanced economies, to small island developing states, spread across the world. This diversity is its strength. In ITU, I know first-hand, that consensus building in the Commonwealth is a good basis for consensus building in ITU. It is at the heart of the Commonwealth Charter. And today, Commonwealth countries are on a journey. The transformation to a digital economy is both an individual and a collective journey. It is made up of thousands of stories – inspirational stories of everyday people such as Surat Singh.

When Mr. Singh retired from his job as a bus driver in Delhi, he had no pension and no way to support his two children and four grandchildren, who all lived together in a small house in a small village an hour outside Delhi. So, to make ends meet, he and his wife opened a small shop. It became their lifeline. But it was not until after the launch of the Digital India programme  and the installation of a cashless payment machine in their shop that the business took off, transforming the lives of the entire family in the process.

How many villages in the Commonwealth and beyond are like that village in India? With no bank or an ATM. How many people like Mr. Singh’s customers would benefit from this technology? Let me remind you that there are still more than 2 billion adults around the world who don’t have a formal bank account, most of them in developing economies. That’s almost the entire population of the Commonwealth! And yet, 1.6 billion of these ‘unbanked’ people have access to a mobile phone.

A mobile phone can change someone’s life. Mobile broadband is booming, more rapidly than any other technology in history. As a result, demand for digital data is exploding and data volumes are soaring. Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data – that is, one-billion billion bytes of data produced every single day by sensors, mobile devices, online transactions and social networking. By the end of 2017, close to 3.6 billion people were online. We are likely to cross the threshold for 50% online connectivity of the global population in 2018.

But we must be careful. In terms of absolute numbers, connectivity rates are actually falling. Over the course of 2016, some 240 million people made it online for the first time. This year, according to the latest ITU estimates, 190 million people will have made it online – still a large number, but some 50 million fewer. And there are several explanations for this. A number of markets are reaching maturity. In other markets, operators are pushing out from ‘easy-to-reach’ urban centres into rural areas where too often, topography and demography defeat market viability.

Bringing urban and rural communities closer together is a big priority for many, if not all, Commonwealth countries. This morning, I mentioned the meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, that was held in New York. This is where countries have the opportunity each year to report on their progress in meeting the SDGs. You can see from this year’s Voluntary National Reviews that seven Commonwealth Countries presented their strategy, and all of them explicitly pointed out the importance and application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in achieving the SDGs.

Access is front and center; it is the first step towards a digital nation. That’s why Botswana, for example, underlined the need to do much more to facilitate modernizing e-service delivery to remote areas of the country, recognizing that “inadequate ICT infrastructure is a significant impediment to economic growth and poverty alleviation”. Could they follow the example of Bangladesh, a fellow Commonwealth member, where people used to travel long distances to access vital information and services? Now, thanks to Union Digital Centres, critical public and private services like mobile financial services have come to the doorsteps of millions of underserved citizens.

Building the next generation of ICT infrastructure will power the evolution of smart, sustainable cities and communities worldwide. Making modern ICT access more widely available, will also foster the local innovation needed to spur domestic economic growth at a time when 80% of the world’s hungry and poor people live in rural areas, with no or little access to the Internet.

As we look towards the 2018 Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-18), bridging the digital divide remains one of our key priorities. This is in line with the new Strategic Plan of the CTO. It will also be one of the cornerstones of ITU’s own Strategic Plan to be adopted at PP-18. A Council Working Group has been created and the first of three public consultations has already taken place. Everything is open and transparent. And while we are still early in the process, we start seeing the key technological trends as well as the challenges that will shape our strategy.

Big Data, Cloud computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and 5G will all shape our digital future. They are important steps on the journey towards a digital nation. IMT-2020 and the 5G standards are set to provide the global communication network for the coming decades. It will be the on-going enabler of new trends in communication devices – from the connected car and intelligent transport systems to augmented reality, holography and wearable devices. But how many people really understand what’s at stake? And how do we communicate the challenges that need to be addressed?

Sometimes our discussions get very technical. And of course, it’s inevitable. But today, it is impossible to consider the technology issues separate from the associated policy and regulatory framework, or policy and regulation without thought to the underlying technology. We need to bring together technologists, regulators and policy makers, not only from the ICT sector, but all the sectors that will increasing depend on the technology, in order to address these challenges. At ITU, our core mission is to increase access to ICTs, and the wider issues and challenges can only be addressed through collaboration, coordination and cooperation with an ever-increasing range of stakeholders and other organisations. We need to remember that increasing access to ICTs is our core function, a development indicator, and aspiration in and of itself.

That’s where I want to turn to those of you in the private sector and civil society. We need fresh investment and collaboration models to unlock the power of ICT connectivity and fast-forward progress on the SDGs. Or else, we risk widening the divides between those positioned to reap the rewards of technological change and those that risk being left behind.

Make no mistake: achieving the SDGs will only be possible by close public-private partnerships. The SDG framework means working beyond ICT sectoral interests into other industrial and commercial sectors that previously had little interaction. Not to mention the significant business opportunity. In a report for GeSI, in partnership with ITU, Accenture has found that implementation of the SDGs could see an estimated increase in ICT sector turnover of USD 2.2 trillion per year by 2030.

On regulation, we need to be more open and collaborative. In a digital nation, the regulator cannot be just a watchdog but a partner and a leader towards meeting the needs of all market sides, unleashing the opportunities new technologies and business models bring about.

Now, connectivity alone won’t be enough. It is estimated that 85% of the world’s population is covered by at least 3G services, but still we have less than 50% of the population connected. We are facing many challenges. Digital inclusion can only be effective and meaningful if and when everyone feels empowered to use the technology – and when the technology is affordable, relevant, attractive and safe – addressing issues of language, local content and online security and skills.

Limiting access to ICT-enabled services to the privileged or higher income groups, will reinforce pre-existing gaps in education and qualification, which in turn will make gaps in digital literacy and digital skills the new chief determinant of future access to better and well-paid jobs. Not only does it undermine the SDGs, but it runs counter to all we stand for. That’s why I was happy to see Commonwealth countries in New York make reference to issues related to digital literacy, e-commerce, digital entrepreneurship, gender equality  and financial inclusion. It shows how ICTs cut across issues and how countries – in the Commonwealth and beyond – increasingly rely on ICTs to drive development and accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.

This cross-cutting approach is also at the heart of ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda.

Three years ago, our Member States embraced a new vision for an information society based on growth, inclusiveness, sustainability, and innovation and partnership. It was a unanimous decision. By the end of the year, we will undertake a thorough review of the status and progress towards the goals and targets of the Agenda.

Let me remind you of a famous old African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” ITU and the CTO have common objectives and common membership. Together, we can help countries on the journey to a digital nation – so that they go as far as they can, and without leaving anyone behind.

By Malcolm Johnson,

ITU Deputy Secretary-General.


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