Meaningful digital transformation: Preparing for the next decade

3.2 Technology / Telecom response to COVID-19

As the world tackles the global COVID-19 pandemic, technology companies, and the broadband internet ecosystem are addressing existing challenges directly through collaborative action. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed significant demands on telecommunications networks and technology applications and services worldwide. As the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has noted, the pandemic has unleashed a number of external shocks (both positive and negative) affecting demand for technology infrastructure, as well as the provision of supply (Table 9).

Table 9: Potential Demand and Supply Shocks of COVID-19 on Digital Infrastructure159

In particular, data from networks around the world demonstrate significant spikes in residential, and overall, network demand and utilization as work and learning activities have shifted to online platforms. For example, Cloudflare data in Europe reveals up to 50% increases in Spain and the UK,160 similar such increases year-on-year in-home broadband in the US,161 and a 30% surge in internet traffic measured by Akamai and its content delivery network (CDN)162.

For the most part, networks have managed the surges in traffic well, though in some instances, increased network congestion has resulted in declines in download speeds and increased network latency, such as measured by Ookla in Hubei, China at the start of the pandemic lockdown.163 In another example, COVID-19 measures in Singapore has also underscored the importance of Singapore’s continual post investments in connectivity infrastructure. While day-time network traffic has grown due to changed usage patterns driven by telecommuting and home-based learning, this is well within Singapore’s telco operators’ network capacity. Singapore’s telecommunications regulator continues to work with telecoms operators to further increase their buffers and ensure people can continue going online. In some countries, online streaming services and other content service providers have voluntarily reduced resolution levels and data file sizes to proactively and pre-emptively prevent network congestion issues.164

The telecommunications and technology sectors are at the forefront of efforts to address the global pandemic head-on, as well as efforts to mitigate and address economic challenges caused by the pandemic disruption. The Broadband Commission has released an “Agenda for Action” underpinned by 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.165 See Chapter 4, Figure 29 and Figure 30 for more information on the Commission’s Agenda for Action.

The ITU, GSMA, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum issued a Digital Development Joint Action Plan and call for action seeking to pursue five objectives: increasing bandwidth, strengthening resilience and security of networks, and managing congestion; connecting vital services and ensuring the continuity of public services to safeguard the welfare of populations; powering fintech and digital business models to support the most impacted businesses and communities; promoting trust, security and safety online; and, leveraging the power of mobile big data.166 The SAMENA Telecommunications Council’s Working Group on Digital Services has published a “Call to Action” that sets out immediate actions and recommendations to governments and regulatory authorities to ensure that current challenges and barriers to the provision, availability and accessibility of relevant digital services can be flexibly and quickly addressed.167

The ITU has established a Global Network Resiliency Platform (#REG4COVID) for regulators, policymakers, industry and other interested stakeholder to share information, view what other initiatives and measures have been introduced around the world, and to exchange data and commentary on experiences, ongoing initiatives, and innovative policy and regulatory measures designed to ensure communities stay connected and encourage cooperation among stakeholders. See, the output document168 and Figure 26 for a summary of responses.

UNDP quickly mounted a strong defense against the pandemic and its impact across its 170 program countries by establishing, among others, a facility to deploy USD 500 million to support innovative solutions169 and mobilizing its Accelerator Labs in 60 countries to quickly develop and scale innovative solutions responding to local and national needs.170 It repurposed other funds and re-oriented global and country teams towards fighting the pandemic and its multidimensional impact, identifying the most effective digital solutions particularly in countries facing vulnerabilities and thus severely and disproportionately affected.171

Figure 26 Framework summary of responses on #REG4COVID172

The World Bank is also tracking digital responses worldwide, noting that various actors in the connectivity ecosystem are deploying a range of measures to address the challenges brought on by the pandemic. From the private sector, ISPs are making services more affordable by relieving data caps, upgrading speeds, zero-rating traffic to specific websites and offering special low-cost voice and data packages. Network operators and ISPs are expanding capacity on existing networks and technologies, while deploying a range of emerging technologies. And governments are encouraging these responses by easing regulatory requirements and through recommendations, including emergency spectrum allocation, elimination and reduction of fees for network deployment and spectrum usage, enabling zero-rating, publication of information on network sharing, allowing VoIP, providing subsidies for users and the purchase of SIM cards and devices, and financial assistance to ISPs and wholesale broadband providers.173 There also have been limited proposals to provide temporary exemptions to net neutrality to allow prioritization of traffic, but such measures have been met with opposition.174

Other crowdsourced efforts are also collecting a list of country (government and private sector) responses to address internet access challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic with over 280 examples collected to date.175 Many content providers are also taking steps to provide greater access to accurate health information during the pandemic.176

One major population around the world that is systematically disadvantaged with limited access to digital technologies are forcibly displaced persons. However, there are increasing global efforts to provide broadband connectivity access to forcibly displaced persons at their hosting communities.

One core focus of organizations taking action in this space is the movement towards creating an enabling and legal regulatory environment for refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. In many countries forcibly displaced persons are excluded from broadband access due to their location or legal and regulatory barriers preventing them from accessing commercial services. This is often due to a lack of recognition of credentials issued to refugees whether by the hosting nation state or international organizations such as UNHCR.

Specifically, UNHCR and the GSMA have been active in highlighting this issue, having collaborated on numerous reports that outline the regulatory barriers across a selection of countries hosting a significant number of refugees. The report Displaced and Disconnected177, was a product of the partnership which covered these issues and are building evidence to support advocacy with governments and regulatory authorities to extend legal pathways to accessing broadband connectivity to forcibly displaced persons.

As an example, in Uganda a 'Technical Working Group' on enhancing connectivity for refugees and their host communities has been established to extend access. Co-chaired by UNHCR and UNCDF, this forum has been utilized to bring Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), ISPs, and humanitarian response actors together to strategize on how to extend connectivity to refugees and their hosting communities, largely rural populations in remote areas of the country. The telecommunications regulator and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) were also part of the discussion. Following collective advocacy resulting from Displaced and Disconnected, and another joint research between the GSMA and UNHCR, "Digital Lives of Refugees"178, the working group facilitated the issuance of a directive from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to MNOs to open SIM card registration to those with refugee identity cards and attestation letters. To strengthen implementation, the process for automated biometric and biographic verification during SIM registration has now been expanded to also cover the refugee population resulting in comparable levels of identity assurance and process integrity.

This directive provided over 600,000 refugees with a legal pathway to accessing cellular connections for the first time and preliminary data demonstrates at least a 50% increase in mobile subscriptions amongst the adult refugee population since the directive came into effect, with the directive being a key contributing factor to such an increase. The full case study has been documented by the GSMA.179

Due to the COVID-19 response, a number of humanitarian organizations have been extending access to broadband connectivity issuing guidance180 with the Broadband Commission including forcibly displaced persons explicitly within its COVID-19 Agenda for Action.181

In the Americas, in response to the Venezuela displacement crisis and displacement in North and Central America, organizations such as NetHope and their members, and UN agencies such as UNHCR, are providing connectivity. Specifically, NetHope have been enhancing services they are providing in light of COVID-19.182

Providing connectivity to vulnerable populations like displaced persons is a challenge under normal circumstances, but a pandemic like COVID-19 makes it all the more difficult. Aid organization Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) has been stepping up its efforts to fulfill its mission.183 For example, TSF has already connected 10 medical centers in Syria with satellite-enabled broadband, covering more than 160,000 patients, and it is increasing the number of vital connections in support of medical teams on the ground, to enable them to be better equipped in the face of this trying crisis.184