The last time I went on an official visit to a small island developing state (SIDS) was to St Kitts and Nevis to attend a Caribbean Telecommunications Union regional ministerial. It was pre-pandemic, and already then, I encouraged the participants to take advantage of the remote participation option – to join ITU meetings at little cost.
I stressed the need for the voice of SIDS to be heard regularly in ITU, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Nobody could have known then how online meetings would soon become the norm, or that the global pandemic would soon put ICTs at the centre of so many people’s lives, and in such a short period of time. Since March last year, ITU has remained fully operational, holding nearly 8,000 virtual events along with more than 10,000 e-meetings, and engaging almost 300,000 remote participants.
ITU treats SIDS as a high priority, recognizing their specific challenges – from expanding access to affordable and reliable connectivity to promoting digital literacy.
We have provided SIDS with highly targeted assistance, in areas ranging from market regulatory reforms, ICT infrastructure and spectrum management to emergency telecommunications and disaster response, cybersecurity, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Right now, ITU is rolling out an initiative in the Pacific that will help deliver digital services in education, agriculture, and health in support of recovery.
Smart Islands is one of many new projects undertaken by ITU since the start of the pandemic, as we strive to boost digital transformation in the hardest-to-connect communities. The approach here – like in all our initiatives – relies on multi-stakeholder collaboration to create an equal digital future.
Regional economies of scale
The challenge for SIDS is not only about small domestic markets and small numbers of ICT suppliers. Often, people do not know how to take advantage of the technologies. There is often a lack of awareness of the advantages of connecting, a lack of relevant local content online in the local language, and a much higher cost of connection in SIDS than most countries.
Many SIDS rely on satellite connections, and a small domestic market does not offer industry enough return on investment – nothing like large urban areas. Industry, therefore, needs to be incentivized. Regulatory frameworks need to be harmonized.
Regional cooperation is key to creating a larger community – with harmonized regimes, including spectrum management, and incentives to encourage investment.
COVID-19 has shown how effective individuals and businesses can be in setting up and operating online – often from home.
Reliable, fast, affordable international connectivity opens up huge potential for SIDS.
We have seen this in the Pacific once a cable was landed.
Setting up for success
ITU continues assisting SIDS with spectrum management and choosing appropriate technical standards, helping islands share in global economies of scale. We advise them on legal and regulatory frameworks to implement digital transformation and capitalize on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We also help SIDS assess and strengthen their innovation capabilities at the national level.
Cost-based tariffs provide a guiding principle, coupled with universal access to ensure that no one is left behind.
The digital divide must be narrowed, as must gender divides both in access and across the industry.
Digital skills must be developed.
Giga – our joint initiative with UNICEF – aims to connect every school to the Internet, while our Digital Skills campaign with the International Labour Organization (ILO) encourages youth to take advantage of new tech-driven work opportunities. Our online educational platform, known as the ITU Academy, and our Digital Transformation Centres, all work towards the same ends.
Collaboration to boost access
We now stand at a turning point. We can tap into new innovations like low Earth-orbiting satellite constellations, made possible by decisions adopted at ITU’s last World Radiocommunication Conference.
We can keep raising the profile of island states’ ICT challenges – as ITU did last year by making SIDS Internet access estimates available for the first time.
We must also, in parallel, intensify our collaboration and cooperation, with each of us bringing specific competencies to the table. If we do, then SIDS will be well on their way to achieving universal, equitable and affordable access to ICTs.
Based on Mr. Johnson’s opening remarks to a SIDS Leaders Group meeting on SIDS and technologies on 14 September 2021.