The last time I made an official visit to a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) was to Saint Kitts and Nevis to attend a regional ministerial meeting of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union. This was before the pandemic, and already back then I was encouraging participants to take advantage of the remote participation option – to attend ITU meetings inexpensively.
I stressed the need for the voice of SIDS to be heard regularly at ITU, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICT).
No one could have known then how online meetings would soon become the norm, or that the global pandemic would soon put ICT at the center of so many people’s lives, and in such a short time. Since March of last year, ITU has remained fully operational, hosting nearly 8,000 virtual events as well as over 10,000 electronic meetings and involving nearly 300,000 remote participants.
Specific challenges for SIDS
ITU considers SIDS a high priority, recognizing their specific challenges – from expanding access to affordable and reliable connectivity to promoting digital literacy.
We have provided highly targeted assistance to SIDS, in areas ranging from market regulatory reforms, ICT infrastructure and spectrum management to emergency telecommunications and disaster response, cybersecurity and adaptation and mitigation of climate change.
Currently, ITU is deploying an initiative in the Pacific that will help deliver digital services in education, agriculture and health in support of the recovery.
Smart islands is one of many new projects undertaken by ITU since the start of the pandemic, as we strive to spur digital transformation in the hardest-to-connect communities. The approach here – as in all of our initiatives – is based on multi-stakeholder collaboration to create an egalitarian digital future.
Regional economies of scale
The challenge for SIDS is not just for small national markets and the small number of ICT providers. Often people don’t know how to take advantage of technology. There is often a lack of awareness of the benefits of connection, a lack of relevant local content online in the local language, and a much higher cost of connection in SIDS than in most countries.
Many SIDS depend on satellite connections, and a small domestic market does not provide industry with sufficient return on investment – nothing like large urban areas. Industry must therefore be encouraged. Regulatory frameworks need to be harmonized.
Regional cooperation is essential to create 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 at setting up and operating online, often from home.
Reliable, fast and affordable international connectivity opens up huge potential for SIDS.
We saw it in the Pacific after a cable was laid.
Set up for success
ITU continues to assist SIDS in spectrum management and selection of appropriate technical standards, thereby helping islands participate in global economies of scale. We advise them on the legal and regulatory frameworks to implement the digital transformation and capitalize on the fourth industrial revolution. We also help SIDS to assess and strengthen their innovation capacities at the national level.
Cost-based tariffs are a guiding principle, coupled with universal access to ensure no one is left behind.
The digital divide must be reduced, as must gender disparities in both access and 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 Labor Organization (ILO) encourages young people to take advantage of new, technology-driven work opportunities. Our online educational platform, known as the ITU Academy, and our digital transformation centers all have the same goals.
Collaboration to improve access
We are now at a turning point. We can take advantage of new innovations such as constellations of low-orbiting satellites, made possible by decisions adopted at the last ITU World Radiocommunication Conference.
We can continue to raise awareness of the ICT challenges of island states – as ITU did last year by making available Internet access estimates for SIDS for the first time.
At the same time, we also need to intensify our collaboration and cooperation, each of us bringing specific skills to the table. If we do, SIDS will be well on the way to achieving universal, equitable and affordable access to ICTs.
Based on opening remarks by Mr Johnson at a meeting of the SIDS Leaders’ Group on SIDS and Technology on September 14, 2021.