The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reestablishment of social practices and productive systems that until a few months ago we took for granted. Telecommunications have become a more than essential service during the health crisis caused by coronavirus.
Telecommunications and technology allows us to keep up to the minute-to-minute progress through the pandemic, helps us contact our loved from distance, work from our homes, make quarantine more bearable with countless entertainment offers, and finally develop applications to combat our own spread of the virus.
Everything changed during the pandemic: More than fifty percent of the population stopped going to their usual places to work, we suspended social encounters with family and friends, children no longer attend classrooms to educate themselves. Despite this, most of the population has been able to continue with their work tasks, managed to maintain contact with their loved ones and has been able to take advantage of online platforms so that educational activities like work activities are not interrupted.
The population has also been able to entertain themselves during confinement through the growing offer of audiovisual services available via streaming like for example Netflix. This would have been impossible years ago, and it is proof of the remarkable progress that telecommunications have experienced, and how they are helping us keep the social and productive system in operation.
Naturally, telecommunications networks are being impacted by the exponential increase in traffic, motivated by the increase in teleworking and videoconferencing during these months of confinement. However, it is important to emphasize that Latin American networks have successfully overcoming this challenge, accommodating to the increase in traffic and preserving the optimal quality levels.
In the post-pandemic times scenario, digitalization will continue to be as crucial as it is now. In the “new normal”, we hope to be able to go out and resume meetings with relatives, but maintaining social distancing and avoiding crowds. We will be able to gradually return to workplaces, but we will continue to telecommute way more than before. Our children may gradually return to the classroom, but this will combine with more online educational activity. Ultimately, we will continue to use telecommunications more than before thanks to the pandemic and its impact on telecommunications.
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Once we get out of the current emergency state, it seems clear that Latin America will continue making progress in closing the digital gap. Estimates for 2020 point to an Internet penetration in the region of 79%. Although this figure is significant and reflects great recent advances, it also implies that 21% of the population faces digital marginalization.
In other words, there is a relevant portion of inhabitants prevented from teleworking, accessing health information, downloading educational content, acquiring goods through the Internet and who therefore, are not being able to mitigate the negative effects of confinement. This will be a challenge for the region based on creating the appropriate environmental conditions that will allow stimulating the necessary investments and public policies to close the digital gap.
For this context, it is worth mentioning that the telecommunications industry has been going through a complex situation, one which combines increasing investment requirements with decreasing levels of income per user, as can be seen in the following figure.
The average income per mobile user, which is already low in relation to those in advanced economies, has been declining since the fourth quarter of 2017. Even in this context, the industry has increased its level of capital investment to drive technological development and network coverage. However, Latin America still registers levels of investment per inhabitant that are below OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, and despite the fact that this distance has been narrowing, a greater impulse is required so that the region can have levels of connectivity similar to those in most developed countries. Proof of this are the investment estimates to deploy 5G in the region between 15% and 20%, depending on the country, license and deployment scenarios.
The sustainability of investments, which was already threatened by the complexities of the pandemic environment, may be more compromised in contexts like this one. Recently, a Fitch Ratings report on telecommunications in Latin America produced worrying forecasts as a result of the pandemic, predicting that operators could cut investments by up to 30% to mitigate the cash flow problems caused by the pandemic. As the liquidity and financial possibilities of companies are compromised, the objective increasing investment levels, and therefore closing the digital gap could be undermined.
Such given measures, which are undoubtedly favorable for the most vulnerable segment of the population, should be carried out through mechanisms that avoid putting at risk the liquidity of the sector and its investment plans. One option is to propose the provision of subsidies focused on the most vulnerable segments in the population, designed so that they can maintain their services in these circumstances. This type of measure, on the other hand, must be implemented in an agile and transparent way, so that its recipients can arrange the aid in a timely manner.
In conclusion, since digital infrastructure is a fundamental component for economic resilience, closing the connectivity gap will require environmental conditions to accompany this process, and to do this it will be necessary to promote the joint action of governments, regulators and operators as allies. If this is achieved, in the face of future emergencies such as the current one, the region will be able to successfully minimize their damaging effects.
Lessons learned: key messages and proposals for moving forward
1. Digital technologies are not the objective but the instrument to reactivate economies:
Local and regional governments must bear in mind that digital technologies are only an instrument and not an end in themselves. The goal of technology is that it can be used to help reduce inequalities in society. In addition, technology can help reduce the risk of spreading the virus and facilitating access to public services during the crisis. In this sense, technology should be seen as an enabler that allows stakeholders to collaborate in the fight against inequality and COVID-19 and that the digital rights of citizens should not have to be affected in doing so. It has facilitated the massive installation of Government 2.0
2. COVID 19: An opportunity to advance efforts to reduce the digital gap:
Digitalization is a growing and enduring trend, with a transformative agenda that will bring us closer and further apart. Responses to COVID 19 emphasize the importance of digital technology in promoting inclusive and just societies. It has also brought to light that the digital gap is no longer just an issue, but something that affect’s people’s access to opportunities and inclusion in their communities.
To close the digital gap, local and regional governments must adequately understand the gaps and needs of their communities through data. In addition to addressing the needs of their communities, closing the digital gap also means ensuring that technology is nondiscriminatory and accessible to everyone in the community, including access to internet devices and information. Social inclusion is an imperative and will dictate the future of equity in cities, work and education. Digital technologies must not leave anyone or any given territory behind.
3. Digital technologies make it possible for local and regional governments to maintain the provision of basic services and open communication channels:
Local and regional governments must continue to provide services to their population, particularly those that have been affected the most by COVID 19 (such as health, education, social cohesion and culture). In this context, local and regional governments must use technology in its various dimensions, also offering digital infrastructure (internet services, Wi-Fi), virtual platforms and services plus physical devices. It is clear that local and regional governments need to conceive of technologies broadly, ranging from high-tech solutions to simple, lower tech solutions. This is done to bring local public administration and public services closer to citizens, as well as to facilitate communication in all directions. Local and regional governments must promote digitalization in an open and holistic way in all their internal and external structures and processes.
4. Human rights are an integral part of the public health response to the crisis and digitalization:
Human rights must be an integral part of any digital response during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. They must be protected online and offline, and citizens must be able to feel safe in both the real and virtual worlds. Digital rights, including affordable and accessible internet access, data privacy, accessible and accurate information, open transparent and ethical standards, should be the norm even in times of crisis. Session participants stressed that human rights must be integrated into any social or public health response to the crisis and that, when using technology, authorities must strive to be as open and transparent as possible. In this context, it was emphasized that data should be considered a public good and that access to information is key to fight against the spread of the virus.
5. To close the digital gap, they must stay beyond the outbreak to drive and consolidate structural change:
All sectors of society have a role in ensuring that we leave no person or territory behind. In the current post COVID-19 response, it will be essential for local and regional governments to foster innovative partnerships with civil society and the private sector to progressively address and continue closing the digital gap. It is through these partnerships that we can learn from this crisis and make access to technology the new normal.