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Digital Transformation 2020

Accelerating digital inclusion and 5G deployment in the new normal

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Isabelle Mauro

Head Digital Communications Industry, World Economic Forum

COVID-19 has achieved in weeks what would have taken years for digital adoption. But it has also exposed gaps and has given a newfound sense of urgency to the digital inclusion agenda.

In April, a number of governments joined the joint World Economic Forum, World Bank, ITU GSMA Call for Action[1], which outlined a number of measures to make affordable and better use of digital technologies and connectivity for citizens, governments and businesses.

These measures have been important stepping stones, but they are not enough to bridge the digital divide in the longer-term. It will take significant capital investment and comprehensive planning, with an injection of government funding, to support the drastic increase in internet usage, as countries move into an increased digital new normal.

To address this, the World Economic Forum recently established the Essential Digital Infrastructure and Services Network (EDISON) initiative, a public-private cross-sector community. It developed a strategic playbook on “Accelerating Digital Inclusion in the New Normal”[2], which highlights the importance of public-private cooperation in addressing the digital inclusion agenda post COVID-19.

In order to accelerate recovery, connectivity will need to be at the core of all other national and regional priorities. The Playbook’s medium- to long-term strategic measures to accelerate digital development and help achieve the right digital transition for a fast, equitable recovery include:

1. Define and implement national digital strategies holistically across all sectors and disburse unused universal service funds to stimulate digital investment in underserved regions.

2. Earmark a portion of the recovery packages to fund infrastructure investment in underserved areas and the digitalisation of other sectors, such as education, healthcare, and financial services.

3. Facilitate digitalisation of SMEs via end-to-end offerings, as SMEs are key drivers of growth.

COVID-19 has significantly impacted 5G deployment. While there were only 10 million 5G connections in 24 markets at the start of 2020, COVID-19 has accelerated global recognition by governments of the value of 5G and the advanced connectivity it can bring to healthcare, education, manufacturing and other critical industries, helping to adapt to the new normal while creating economic stimulus[3].

Developing countries are more open to consider 5G network development a national priority, as 5G networks are likely to cover one-third of the world’s population by 2025 and generate $13.2 trillion of economic value by 2035.

The COVID-19 crisis is a watershed moment for digital infrastructure and services. It is critical that we rapidly tackle the challenge to bring high-quality, universal internet access to all, in order to build inclusive economies and give young people globally access to the wealth of human knowledge so that they can learn, innovate and lead in the future.

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