Earlier this month, representatives from the private sector, national regulators, and other key stakeholders from around the world convened for the 20th edition of the Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR). Held annually under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), GSR brought together over 600 experts representing 120 countries and over 75 companies to participate in a series of discussions intended to improve cooperation, support information sharing, and promote best practices for expanding access to affordable, safe, secure, and trusted connectivity to communities around the world. The need for urgent action to close the connectivity gap was underscored by the virtual nature of this year’s GSR and the ongoing economic and social challenges posed by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
As a platform for open policy discussions to advance solutions to the most pressing telecommunication/ICT issues of the day, the GSR takes on an even greater importance given current circumstances. We have reached this important 20th anniversary milestone at a time when the international community is being upended by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before COVID-19, communities around the world had grown increasingly reliant on digital technologies to support their livelihoods, preserve social bonds, and access critical healthcare and government services. However, gaps in broadband supply and demand remain and we must address this challenge with renewed energy and focus. Robust, market-driven rules can not only help prevent unintended consequences associated with overly narrow and prescriptive regulation; they can also be leveraged to accelerate a successful post-COVID recovery.
Under the able leadership of ITU’s Development Bureau Director, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the BDT is playing a critical role in bringing stakeholders together to chart a way forward. Public-private cooperation will be indispensable for sustaining private sector investment in broadband infrastructure and digital technologies and encouraging their widespread adoption – including among traditionally unserved or underserved regions and communities. As Ms. Bogdan-Martin noted during this year’s GSR, almost half the global population remains offline and there exists a chronic “usage gap” consisting of billions who are covered by mobile broadband networks still not using mobile internet services. In fact, one recent ITU study noted that while the penetration of mobile broadband in OECD countries is at 74% in terms of unique subscribers, those figures are 31%, 52%, and 57% in Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America, respectively. We clearly have a long way to go to make the vision of universal access and adoption a reality, but neither industry or government alone cannot overcome the challenge of accessibility – or build an innovative post-COVID future.
Fortunately, this year’s symposium and the digital transformation initiatives championed by Ms. Bogdan-Martin gives me cause for optimism. Under her leadership, industry and government partnered together to create the Global Network Resiliency Platform (#REG4COVID) – a living repository of cross-sector and cross-country initiatives designed to support ICT and digital connectivity in response to the pandemic. What’s more, the ITU partnered with the World Bank, World Economic Forum, and GSMA to release the COVID-19 Crisis Response: Digital Development Joint Action Plan . This is consistent with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda and other ITU-led efforts focused on expanding e-education, empowering women and girls, and building a more inclusive digital economy for future generations.
During this challenging time, the Symposium allowed for frank conversations on how governments and the private sector can build on the progress of the last 20 years to close the digital divide and chart a more prosperous and inclusive future. To quote Ms. Bogdan-Martin:
“Now, more than ever, outdated adversarial models that pitted regulators against private companies, and private companies against one another, need to be replaced by collaborative approaches where all stakeholders work together to create win-win strategies that will benefit government, industry, and users.“
The path forward is clear. At AT&T, we are proud to support the BDT’s efforts to close the connectivity gap and empower the communities that stand to benefit the most from the next wave of innovation. We look forward to working with our partners in government and industry to advance our shared goal of fostering vibrant, competitive markets around the globe and building resilient, connected communities everywhere.