After Covid: A Connectivity Pandemic?

The connected vs. the unconnected

By: Samuel Bocetta

At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has socked us all into a new reality, only 59 percent of the world's population is connected to the Internet. For many countries, it is a luxury that simply doesn’t exist. In others where connectivity is spotty at best (or restricted), economic and social collapse due to the pandemic are paving the way for deep recessions. 

The gap between those who are connected and those who are not has never been felt more dramatically than right now. This tragedy may ultimately prove to be the most difficult one among the 41 percent of the world 's population that are unconnected to overcome and do not have access to basic information and opportunities.

We have learned how to live a different life online. We have come to read, interact, shop, and work together differently. During the current crisis, it has informed us of government-enforced restrictions and forced social distancing. However, this connectivity can’t be taken for granted.

As governments come to realize that pandemics are likely to increase in number, the fact that we are lacking in connectivity calls for infrastructure investment. Significant challenges call for immediate action to ensure organizational stability and to ensure availability to the persons who really need it as the Covid tsunami continues around the world.

The rising demands on the world's internet connections have been intense. The use of both video and streamed entertainment services has increased – Zoom has reported a 20-fold increase in the number of daily participants. In some countries, voice calls have tripled and the use of communications apps has doubled. The abrupt change to life online has resulted in unprecedented congestion and strain on vital ICT infrastructure. 

New challenges are emerging with regard to access and affordability on a global scale

Addressing the world’s internet inequalities

There is also a deeper and more enduring lesson. Although it is true that we are only now realizing just how much we rely on web access, it is only true for people who are used to having an internet connection and virtual private networks that give you the privacy and security you desperately need when you’re online.

Increasing connectivity

There is an urgent need for rapid private-public collaboration to ensure that those who need to be connected get the support they so desperately need. To support this, the World Bank, the International Telegraph Union, the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) have developed an expedited collaborative effort to pinpoint immediate objectives for private-public collaborative work that can be pursued by governments in partnership with the private sector as soon as possible.

To ensure connectivity, five priorities have been highlighted that are being shared globally. These priorities may lay the foundation for partnerships between industry, ICT and should catalyze continuous cooperation between the government and industry to improve internet access beyond the present crisis.

Promoting network resilience

Governments should maintain the stability of the digital industry supply chain by modernizing customs and the logistical frameworks and classifying network equipment as critical infrastructure. This may be extremely challenging in times where most of the new internet users would have no grasp on antivirus software or other basic safety products available that can keep them safe online. 

They should also facilitate, as necessary during the crisis, emergency access to additional spectrum resources, speed up the approval of new sites and installations, and, where necessary, allow for voluntary sharing of infrastructure and the provision of dark fiber.

For example, countries including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Ireland, Jordan, Panama, the US, Brazil, and South Africa have provided spectrum relief to operators to provide increased network coverage and capacity.

Ensuring access to affordable digital services

Governments have to advocate the smart and responsible use of network capacity by the public at large in moments of crisis without creating systemic distortions. They can do this by permitting the allocation and acquisition of prepaid mobile services in crucial commercial premises for customers who do not have access to these kinds of facilities.

For example, Chile has committed to a "solidarity plan" to ensure affordable internet access in conjunction with its private sector. Egypt has provided free SIM cards to students and is prepared to commit to shouldering the expenses of providing a 20 percent increase across all monthly downloads to customers. And Thailand has designed a public support scheme for mobile users to be able to register 10 free gigabytes of data usage. It has been proven that big data and AI can help us fight the battle against Covid-19, as such affordable digital services should be non-negotiable.

Social distancing and connectivity

The key to preventing the spread of the coronavirus is to support the pre-purchase of broadband Internet access for government officials and other targeted groups in the context of home-based work to ensure the operational continuity of government services and to support operators' finances at a time of crisis. For example, many countries have supported public service teleworking, including Nigeria while India has been steadily loosening investment restrictions.

Leveraging e-health and big data

Governments can support telemedicine, digital services and mobile applications to promote e-health and healthcare systems, particularly in areas that desperately need remote healthcare. They can ensure close dialog between national governments and service providers on the use of mobile broadband observations to track the pandemic while conforming to stringent, appropriate privacy guidelines.

For example, Pakistan has started working with telecoms companies to deliver text messages to subscribers containing Covid-19 related medical information, and Cote d'Ivoire has begun working with their mobile operators to create a public health information resource made available through apps and websites. 

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set up a US$200 million Covid-19 Telehealth Initiative to help healthcare providers purchase airtime, internet or broadband access, and other equipment needed to provide telehealth services.

The FCC also established the Connected Care Pilot Program that will provide up to US$100 million in funding from the existing Universal Service Fund (USF) to help offset the costs of delivering connected care services to healthcare providers and to help determine how the fund can be used to fund telehealth in the long term.

Ensuring institutional frameworks are fit for purpose

Governments should also support the development of emergency action plans for information communication technology (ICT) and telecommunications. These should include the addressing of relevant bottlenecks that currently prevents private sector investment and equal access.

Across every industry, over the world, our futures are becoming increasingly digital. From banking to e-commerce to health and education. There is no reason to delay any further.

We need to ensure adequate internet access for the post-COVID-19 world

Internet access for everyone in the post-Covid-19 world

Beyond the pandemic response, most people now realize that we should exit this catastrophe with modified beliefs, behaviors, and expectations. With the threat of cybercrime to businesses being now more present than ever before, it is clear there needs to be a shift in the conversation if any real improvements are to be made. 

We will have to get back to work, redevelop, and recreate businesses, even though we will continue to face significant inescapable challenges.

Knowing in practice what major global shutdowns look like, we will tackle sustainability challenges with new enthusiasm – with big data and advanced analytics playing a key role in our science-based efforts, and digital platforms playing a key role in distribution productivity and coordination.

Across all our goals – both as individuals and as human beings collectively – we will all rely more on digital technology in our lives.

Unless we quickly address the challenge of providing high-quality universal access to the Internet to all of us, we will not be capable of building inclusive economies. We would never be capable of bringing our vast resources to deal with future catastrophes or environmental degradation. And we will not be able to give young people global access to the wealth of human understanding so that they can understand, drive innovation and give rise to the future.

We need to increase awareness to guarantee that our global connective knowledge continues flowing to overcome our present situation. But we must also ensure that we maintain the urgency of extending access to all.

Samuel Bocetta is a retired security analyst and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.