The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development met in Kigali, Rwanda, this weekend to pinpoint new actions that can drive faster progress towards universal meaningful access to digital networks and services.
The high-level advocacy group came together for its annual Spring Meeting at the invitation of the Commission Co-Chair, H.E. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, ahead of the landmark digital development conference held every four years by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC).
In his opening remarks to the meeting, President Kagame told Commissioners: “We are still living in tough times, economically, politically, and in terms of global public health. The immediate future is full of uncertainties and risks. But one thing is sure: All of the challenges we face can be handled faster, better, and more equitably, by investing in universal, affordable broadband."
Commission Co-Chair Carlos Slim also emphasized the importance of connectivity in the wake of the ongoing global health crisis. “For the adoption gap, carriers could provide the devices, and government programmes could pay the monthly subscription for families that qualify, ensuring reasonable packages with unlimited minutes and enough data. This would support remote education, e-health, and e-commerce, among many other digital services," he said.
Commissioners and Special Guests representing government leaders, heads of international organizations and private sector companies, along with civil society and academia, discussed the power of digital transformation to create broad and positive socio-economic impact and looked at ways to rapidly increase access to broadband, foster innovative partnerships, empower youth, and build trust in online spaces.
In particular, they confronted chronic connectivity challenges and discussed how to ensure affordable, sustainable, and equitable access to digital services across regions, especially in the world's 46 Least Developed countries, where 17% of the population is still without a mobile broadband signal, and hundreds of millions more kept offline by high prices, lack of digital skills and awareness, and a dearth of usable, relevant and accessible content.
Recognizing the role digital technologies play in all facets of economic activity, Commissioners shared government and business strategies that are incentivizing investment in digital literacy, connectivity, and skills.
Commission Co-Vice Chair Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General, noted that "One of the challenges we need to overcome is reducing the cost of broadband subscriptions and digital devices, especially in low- and lower-middle-income economies. Affordability of broadband services in developing countries is also one of the Commission's 2025 targets. I do hope that we can use this moment to accelerate the achievement of these targets and break down these last barriers to connectivity."
“Digital and media literacy skills are among the most empowering of human transformations: in terms of our livelihoods, in terms of our access to quality and lifelong education, in terms of decisions guiding our health and safety, and in terms of understanding and exercising our civil rights," said Dr Tawfik Jelassi, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, representing UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, who serves as the Commission's other Co-Vice Chair. “Broadband Commissioners have a unique awareness of this. We have a unique capacity to lead change, through innovation, investment, advocacy and partnership."
This latest Commission meeting – the first in-person meeting in two years – provided clear synergies with WTDC, set to kick off with the theme of “Connecting the unconnected to achieve sustainable development".
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau and the Commission's Executive Director, emphasized the urgent need for strong partnerships to step up connectivity.
"In alignment with the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, the UN Secretary General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation and the 2030 Common Agenda, the Commission will leverage the strength of its membership and collective expertise to advocate for meaningful, safe, secure, and sustainable broadband communications services," she said.
The Broadband Commission made an advocacy pledge to the ITU Partner2Connect Digital Coalition to help reach inclusive universal connectivity, through policy recommendations addressing broadband policy, access, affordability, use and skills and the advocacy actions to realize 2025 Broadband Advocacy Targets. Pledges were also received by 16 Broadband Commissioners and their entities.
The meeting also highlighted the new Call to Action: My Digital Future, presented by Generation Connect Visionaries Board members as an outcome of the first-ever Generation Connect Youth Summit, calling for inter-generational efforts to build an equitable, inclusive digital future.
A video, Broadband Transforming Lives, addressed Broadband Commission Advocacy Target 4 on digital skills for youth and adults, highlighting the work of young changemakers who are embracing technology to make a positive impact on their communities. These voices of the younger generation, together with Commissioners' input, will be conveyed to the upcoming UN Transforming Education Summit 2022, which aims to shape the future of education and learning.
Commissioners also reported on the progress of the Commission's four current Working Groups: Virtual Health & Care; Smartphone Access; Data for Learning; and AI Capacity Building.
A preview of the forthcoming report of the Working Group on The Future of Virtual Health and Care, co-chaired by Dr Ann Aerts, Head of the Novartis Foundation, and the World Health Organization, emphasized the need for sound stewardship of the global explosion in virtual health triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure it drives equitable health access and does not exacerbate existing health inequities.