There’s no doubting the importance of connectivity –high speed internet access – to economic and social development. Every industrial sector, every area of business, society and daily life benefits from connectivity and the applications, solutions, products and systems it enables.
Indeed, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ’s core mandate is connecting the unconnected – bringing the digitally disenfranchised of the world online, often those in remote and rural regions, in developing countries and from underrepresented groups such as women, older people, or the disabled.
But given that some 90% of the world’s population is already able to access at least 2G or 3G mobile data services, why is internet access stuck at just above 51%? Why is adoption and usage so limited? What are the stumbling blocks to seeing the benefits of the digital age reaching more and more people across the globe?
The simple answer is that connectivity alone is not enough.
This is not to disregard the enormous difficulties in terms of investment costs and infrastructure deployment in what are often challenging topographies, with scattered populations, little or no access to reliable energy sources and markets that render current business models economically inviable.
These are real barriers to access, barriers which require enormous creativity and innovation to overcome, focusing on public private partnerships, investment structures, infrastructure sharing and hybrid technologies. But to be meaningful, to really make a difference, to matter, connectivity needs to be supported by access to affordable devices, government awareness initiatives, digital literacy programmes, solutions and applications relevant to the local context and daily life of new users.
Making connectivity meaningful
Making connectivity meaningful is a whole new set of challenges – one that ITU Telecom World 2019 is happy to face head on. The leading tech event for governments, big industry players and SMEs, ITU Telecom World is organized each year by ITU, the UN’s principal agency for information and communication technologies. Taking place this year from 9 – 12 September in Budapest, Hungary, on the theme of “Innovating together: connectivity that matters”, the event will host a forum of expert-led critical debates addressing just how we can collaborate across sectors and international boundaries to ensure the digital economy is not just accessible, but relevant, equitable and safe for all.
What new partnerships, regulatory approaches, government initiatives or industry models can impact on increasing meaningful connectivity? Can we create a culture of responsible innovation aimed at improving lives everywhere, rather than just innovation for innovation’s sake? How can the public sector, international organizations and industry bodies work together to mitigate digital exclusion and the risks of living in a hyper-connected society?
These are questions which go to the very heart of the digital society in which many of us already live – and which is expanding exponentially, risking a further deepening of the divide between the connected and the unconnected, the digital haves and have nots.
Tomorrow’s technologies today
Technological developments are crucial to increasing meaningful connectivity and bridging the divide. These include the range of new players, applications, anduse cases in the world of satellites, such assmall satellites, LEOs, HAPS and non-GSO constellations, with the potential to open up global, affordable access and new services.
Then there’s the growth of 5G as the key enabler of tomorrow’s digital economy, linking smartphones and wireless sensors, powering smart sustainable cities and the fourth industrial revolution. Its unprecedented potential is so great that many 5G services and applications are yet to be discovered, created or understood. But where do we really stand on 5G deployment, what policies and frameworks do we need to accelerate its implementation, and what should the role of government and private sectors be? Is 5G a springboard to the digital society in developing markets, can it be used to meet basic human needs as well as commercial and industrial ends, or will it increase that divide?
The same questions apply to the future of broadband, be it ultra-fast, wireless or gigabit, and the rapid expansion of machine learning and AI. How should broadband strategies evolve to ensure inclusion in a digital gigabit society? How can we capitalize on the potential of AI to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity – and not leave anyone behind?
Fair, inclusive, representative
Ensuring connectivity is equitable means establishing the digital principles and values of our increasingly digital future. Given the economic and social consequences, the concentration of power in the hands of very few digital stakeholders needs to be addressed. As machine learning and AI develop, so too does the risk of replicating the biases, unconscious or otherwise, of the limited few inputting the data behind those powerful algorithms – with potential dramatic ramifications for individuals across, for example, the justice system, employment and financial sectors.
Dismantling the barriers of disability with technology, creating better accessibility and access to services is critical to inclusivity. So too is awareness of, and efforts to mitigate, gender bias in AI and the wider tech industry. How can the public sector, international organizations and industry bodies work together to combat digital exclusion and the risks of living in a hyper-connected society?
Security through design – and collaboration
Those risks include privacy, cybersecurity, data management and consumer trust in a globalized digital environment. Government and regulators must work to ensure connectivity is safe and inclusive, balancing privacy, innovation, socio-economic benefits and security. Consumers need to be educated and informed on the importance of data management, from those in developed markets all too happy to trade their privacy for the convenience of connected devices in the home, to the new consumers coming on line in developing markets potentially unaware of the dangers of cyberspace.
And digital skills, from basic computer literacy to data scientists, must be a government imperative in the digital age. Connectivity without digital literacy is, after all, like a bicycle without wheels – a great idea in principle, but going nowhere. How can governments prepare their citizens for the challenges of the digital future, for lifelong learning, for the skills needed in an automatized, AI-driven world and a radically different jobs market?
Sharing ideas, experiences, case studies and good practice is essential – as are public private partnerships, cross sector partnerships, international partnerships. Making connectivity meaningful is too big a task for any single player. ITU Telecom World 2019 will bring answers to some of these questions, lay the groundwork for potential partnerships – and provide inspiration for shaping a digital future that is accessible, relevant and beneficial for us all.