Build back better after COVID-19: Key learnings from 20 years of ICT regulatory reform

As we look back at 20 years of telecommunication/information and communication technology regulation at this year’s milestone Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR-20), there is no better time to understand how the responses and initiatives from the ICT sector during the COVID-19 pandemic can help ITU Members – and the world – to build back better.

Two decades have seen GSR become the pre-eminent global meeting for regulators and policymakers to tackle the many challenges emerging from the convergence of ICT services. From digital taxation frameworks to consumer trust, infrastructure sharing to network investment, the symposium also serves as a choice venue for regulators to interact and collaborate with the private sector to solve these and other critical challenges.

This year, as its own response to COVID-19 restrictions, GSR is going digital and will be held as a virtual meeting from 1-3 September 2020. As the world moves from response to recovery in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, look for the upcoming points to be covered in GSR’s online sessions as they reflect what ITU members and the wider ICT community will need to bear in mind as the so-called ‘new normal’ takes shape.

5 key approaches to the ‘new normal’

First, how might institutional frameworks be made fit for purpose in a post-COVID world? Key issues to be addressed are privacy and data protection – especially concerning health information. Does the advent of contact tracing and tracking apps require even closer collaboration between data protection agencies and telecoms? What is the role of telecoms in tackling the global issue of COVID-19-related misinformation and disinformation? What is clear is that new and existing institutional frameworks must be designed to support data privacy and help combat misinformation.

It is also important to understand the sector competition impacts of the post-pandemic era – particularly in terms of data sovereignty, and data ownership. Changes in market power between industry segments also come into play here. For example, operators may face long-term reduced demand or higher costs as the world recovers from the pandemic. At the same time, initial indications suggest that so-called “tech giants” may become significantly stronger under a range of potential future scenarios. Such a situation could arise not only because of the sizeable market power of these companies, but also because of their critical role as the gatekeepers for smartphone operating systems, which must be opened for contact tracing apps, tackling COVID-related disinformation, and more. This shifting balance of market power between these two segments of the communications and technology industries may, in turn, require new regulatory settings.

The pandemic has caused remote working to shift from exception to norm in many workplaces around the world. But working from home comes with increased cybersecurity risks such as malware infection, unauthorised access, data security, and insecure devices. Hackers and online scammers are taking advantage of these risks, with cybercrime accelerating as COVID-19 continues to spread. One report by the security firm Mimecast revealed that during the first 100 days of the crisis, spam and opportunistic detections increased by 26.3 per cent globally, impersonation was up 30.3 per cent, malware by 35.16 per cent and the blocking of URL clicks by 55.8 per cent. In response to these increased cybersecurity threats, governments have taken to steps to address gaps in digital trust and security. For example, the Welsh Government announced a GBP 248,000 cyber grant scheme for local authorities to help strengthen their IT systems. The Australian Cyber Security Centre released guidelines that outline key cyber security practices for people who are working from home.

In many countries, spectrum availability and capacity were expanded as temporary emergency measures during the pandemic to accommodate surges in traffic and to ensure continued service delivery. Such responses typically involve allowing the use of either vacant spectrum or unused spectrum of existing licenses. As GSR-20 approaches, the time has come to carefully examine how such temporary measures will be bridged with the new “normal”, while providing greater network access and maintaining improved quality of service for all.

Last but not least, inclusion, accessibility, and digital divide issues will be heightened in a post-COVID scenario due to the fact that the negative impacts of the pandemic will fall more heavily on vulnerable populations. On social equity grounds in the new COVID normal world, there are pressing reasons to accelerate connectivity and digital skills for an estimated 3.6 billion people who remain totally offline. In addition to a more urgent need for universal service strategies and policies to combat new forms of digital divide. That means the need for improved affordability of ubiquitous broadband for all citizens and residents will only grow in the post-pandemic scenario.

Terrestrial network deployments innovative and future technologies such as non-GEO satellites and HAPS should be facilitated in order to connect the unconnected. As ITU Secretary-General and Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development Co-Vice Chair Houlin Zhao recently stated, “As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, making in-roads in the developing world and threatening all of humanity, we need to take immediate action to ensure no one is left behind. This unprecedented crisis shows that nobody is safe until we are all safe. And it shows, with no ambiguity, that we will not unleash the full potential of broadband until we are all connected.”

Building on GSR learnings to shape the ‘new normal’

Despite the considerable uncertainty involved in looking further out, ITU Members are encouraged to “look back to the future” and bear in mind the collective learnings facilitated by REG4COVID and complied in the discussion paper during the upcoming GSR deliberations.

We look forward to collectively tackling challenges in the new post-COVID-19 context, from encouraging investment, to fostering innovation, from facilitating sector competition to pursuing social equity and inclusion in transformed economic and societal environments everywhere.

Learn more about REG4COVID

Attend the main sessions of GSR-2020, this year to be held as a global virtual meeting from 1-3 September.

Download the GSR Discussion Paper Pandemic in the Internet Age.