The world in 2020 is in a state of flux. While much progress has been made globally over the past ten years in expanding access to, and adoption of, broadband infrastructure and services, significant challenges remain in tackling digital inequalities, addressing the current widespread impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in accelerating efforts towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
Ten years ago, the global community witnessed the significant impact and widespread adoption of mobile communications that expanded across the world in the first decade of the 21st century. But internet usage and broadband were still at nascent levels, especially in developing countries. Least Developed Countries (LDCs), in particular, had mobile and fixed broadband subscriptions in 2010 that were both less than 1% of their population levels.
In 2010, in response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s call to accelerate efforts towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) , the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the Broadband Commission for Digital Development.
After a decade of high-level advocacy, policy recommendations, numerous working groups with research reports, and the incubation of several significant partnerships, the Broadband Commission is one of the leading global advocacy groups working towards universal broadband connectivity to ensure that the broadband ecosystem is being leveraged for broader development underpinning the SDGs.
However, much work remains. Digital inequalities and uneven access and adoption of the internet is prevalent not only between countries, but also within countries. These inequalities existed before the current crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the disparities in access to high-speed connectivity and online safety issues as many, if not most, adults and children on the planet in some way shifted towards remote work, learning, and communication activities.
Emphasizing the sheer toll that the crisis is imposing, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has warned that even with intense social distancing, the African continent alone, with its population of 1.3 billion, could have nearly 123 million cases this year, and 300,000 people could die of the disease. Globally, the World Bank is forecasting that under a baseline scenario, COVID-19 may push 71 million people into extreme poverty. The efforts to respond to the crisis have been enormous. In the first ninety days of the crisis alone, nearly 1,700 economic policy announcements were made by governments and institutions to ameliorate the extent of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact on childhood education is particularly acute for countries where digital divides already exist. Based on an August 2020 policy brief presented by the United Nations, school closures and learning disruptions have impacted 94% of the world’s student population; in low and lower-middle income countries, up to 99% of the student population have been affected. This amounts to nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and the largest disruption of education systems in history. Some 23.8 million children may not return to schooling in the coming year because of the pandemic’s economic impact alone.
Figure 1 Education in the time of COVID-19
Besides educational impacts, more, and younger, children than ever before are online often without adult supervision which on one hand allows them to learn, play and socialize, but also exposes them to heightened risks of abuse, exploitation and other harm. Ensuring their safety remains a major concern. Additionally, the United Nationals Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is warning that in a worst-case scenario, as many as 1.2 million extra deaths among children under five years old could occur as funds are diverted from existing health programs in order to combat COVID-19. And because of the overall impact that COVID-19 will have on the entire global population, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is forecasting an overall decline in global human development (as measured in via its Human Development Index) for the first time since 1990.
Therefore, the need for the global broadband community and partners to maximize its potential positive contributions to the global community are significant and cannot be overstated. The broadband ecosystem has the opportunity to play a positive role in society and economies, strengthening infrastructure, institutions, and systems that not only address the current challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also prepare the world for future disasters. Building back better with broadband, preparing against future shocks, and ensuring universal equitable access is part of the new normal will require an emphasis on digital infrastructure and technologies in the pandemic response, recovery, and resiliency-building efforts.
As the Broadband Commission reaches its ten-year milestone and recognizing that only a decade remains for the global community to reach the SDGs, the 2020 State of Broadband report provides an important venue to reflect on progress made in directing broadband internet deployment for social development and economic growth across the world. The challenge of this unprecedented global pandemic has demonstrated the unquestionable centrality of access to connectivity for all in order to effect sustainable development, economic growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. COVID-19 also uncovered and highlighted the inequalities among and within countries, and the urgency of accelerating achieving the goal of universal access to broadband connectivity. This serves as an opportunity to re-commit the Broadband Commission and the global community in leveraging information and communications technologies (ICTs) to accelerate interventions for human progress, as exemplified by the considerable beneficial interventions initiated by the Commission’s own members during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The achievement of the SDGs will require affordable, ubiquitous and meaningful broadband connectivity with the associated essential competencies and applications.
The Broadband Commission stands ready to spearhead the global efforts for a digitally-enabled and digitally-driven pandemic response, recovery, rebuilding, and resiliency effort. Already the Broadband Commission has released an “Agenda for Action” underpinned by the three strategic pillars supporting 1) resilient connectivity; 2) affordable access; and 3) safe use of online services for informed and educated societies, with a number of short term actions for impact committed to by Commissioners and their organizations. And the Commission will continue its efforts towards the 2025 Advocacy Targets and support the Decade of Action towards the SDGs by focusing on its core capabilities and strengths. These include:
1) Continued high-level advocacy efforts and high-quality research on key topics related to the 2025 Broadband Commission Targets and the impact of broadband on accelerating progress towards the SDGs, in particular SDG 9c; 2) Leveraging the momentum and reach of the Broadband Commission to support other related initiatives, such as the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel and Roadmap for Digital Cooperation; and,
3) Continuing collaboration among Commissioners and their organizations to incubate highly effective and impactful partnerships (such as EQUALS , GIGA , Child Online Safety Universal Declaration and others), and commitments to moving forward the achievements of the 2030 UN SDGs.
The world is in a critical moment in history. Achieving the Advocacy Targets and the SDGs will depend on all of our commitment to our common responsibility to collaborate, partner and develop more inclusive and sustainable models. It is essential that all stakeholders are involved along the process to leverage the power of broadband and promote a faster and better recovery for all.
1In fact, ITU leadership at the time called for the world to invest in broadband infrastructure deployment in order to replicate the “mobile miracle” and do for the internet what had been done to greatly expand access to mobile communications. See https://www.itweb.co.za/content/VgZeyvJVEP4vdjX9 2The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) galvanized efforts by the world’s governments and leading development institutions towards global challenges. These were: 1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 2) Achieve universal primary education; 3) Promote gender equality and empower women; 4) Reduce child mortality; 5) Improve maternal health; 6) Combat HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases; 7) Ensure environmental sustainability; and 8) Global partnership for development. More information can be found at https://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/bkgd.shtml 3See https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/AFRICA/yzdpxoqbdvx/ 4https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/updated-estimates-impact-covid-19-global-poverty 5See https://www.asiapacific.ca/publication/tracking-asia-pacifics-financial-policy-response-covid-19 6https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/sg_policy_brief_covid-19_and_education_august_2020.pdf 7Salomón. https://twitter.com/andrespayarico/status/1276957010655838208 8https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/covid-19-devastates-already-fragile-health-systems-over-6000-additional-children 9https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2020/COVID19_Human_development_on_course_to_decline_for_the_first_time_since_1990.html 10https://news.itu.int/hows-how-we-are-seizing-the-moment-to-build-a-better-digital-future-for-all/ 11https://www.broadbandcommission.org/COVID19/Pages/default.aspx 12EQUALS is a Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age initiated by the ITU, ITC, GSMA, UN Women and others. See https://www.equals.org/ 13GIGA is the ITU and UNICEF Global Initiative to Connect Every School to Internet by 2030. See https://www.gigaconnect.org/ 14https://www.childonlinesafety.org; See also the ITU 2020 Child Online Protection (COP) Guidelines which are a comprehensive set of recommendations for all relevant stakeholders on how to contribute to the development of a safe and empowering online environment for children and young people. Targeting children, parents and educators, industry and policy-makers, the COP Guidelines are meant to act as a blueprint, which can be adapted and used in a way that is consistent with national or local customs and laws. https://www.itu-cop-guidelines.com/