Digital technologies are vital tools for helping people cope with stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Digital technologies are instrumental in supporting health care systems, not only though telemedicine and COVID screening apps, but also through Big Data and artificial intelligence analytics for mobility patterns, epidemiological models, and contact tracing. And in many other sectors, digital is also the new normal for individuals, governments, and businesses around the world.
But digital requires access to affordable and reliable internet connections. Government and industry responses to enhance access are urgently needed, especially in lower-income countries. Consider this: only 19 percent of the people in the Least Developed Countries are using the internet. In Africa, the regional average for broadband penetration — including 3G and 4G connections — is still only 25 percent.
The World Bank’s Digital Development Global Practice has identified more than 300 government and private sector initiatives around the world in which COVID-19 response encompasses actions on digital ICT infrastructure and digital services for health, education and payments.
Our database covers responses in 30 high-income countries and 53 low- and middle-income countries, including more than 20 countries in Africa.
Ensuring reliable and affordable Internet access
The private sector has quickly stepped up to make service more affordable by offering special low-cost voice and data packages, zero-rating traffic to specific websites, upgrading speed and relieving data caps. At the same time, due to changes in the volume and geographic patterns of traffic, telecom network operators and ISPs have adjusted network configuration and expanded their capacity, while high bandwidth–consuming digital services have temporarily downgraded streaming quality. Collaboration with governments is helping ensure connectivity in remote and rural areas using various technologies — 4G (New Zealand), high-altitude balloons (Kenya), fiber-to-the-cabinet (Italy), TV whitespaces (South Africa) and satellite (Australia).
Governments have encouraged these industry responses through regulations and recommendations. But most importantly, they have implemented responsive policies: emergency spectrum allocation (as in the USA, South Africa, Ghana), elimination or reduction of fees for network deployment and spectrum usage (for example, in Brazil’s Campinas municipality and the Philippines), and enabling rules on zero-rating, exemptions on network neutrality to prioritize certain traffic, publication of information for network sharing (Germany) and allowing VoIP (Oman).
Governments have also made available resources to facilitate access, such as subsidies for mobile users (Thailand), purchase of SIM cards and tablets in (Egypt, Saudi Arabia), and financial assistance to help retail ISPs support their customers and pricing relief for retailers to access the wholesale national broadband (backbone) network (Australia). The regulator in Costa Rica has also proposed the use of universal service funds to improve connectivity. Given the crisis, some regulators have allowed delayed payment of regulatory fees (Honduras, Colombia). Some countries have temporarily stopped suspension of service for delayed payments (Peru); and in a few countries, governments have also suspended payments for utilities for all users, impacting the sector’s liquidity.
Facilitating access to key digital services
Most countries are prioritizing a set of four use cases for digital services:
- Health: Digital health services including telemedicine, self-diagnosis apps, and dissemination of public health information (zero-rated access to selected sites, bulk SMS, awareness raising videos). These solutions have been deployed in at least 30 countries; over a dozen of them have benefitted from public-private collaboration (for example in Cote d’Ivoire and India). Infection tracking and contact-tracing tools are helping identify who may have the virus, monitor population mobility to understand how it may spread, and predict contagion patterns based on AI models. At least 18 countries have launched public-private collaboration with mobile operators and digital platforms to develop systems and apps that inform public health responses while helping safeguard the privacy of personal information (for example, Israel and Ghana).
- Digital transactions and mobile money to facilitate cashless transactions and allow government-to-person social protection transfers. At least 11 developing countries have temporarily suspended or reduced fees, and governments have issued guidelines to encourage the use of mobile payments.
- E-learning. At least 34 countries have initiatives including zero-rated internet traffic, e-learning platforms for students and educators, and subsidized access to connectivity and devices. Edutech efforts to deploy technology in support of online learning are emerging and evolving rapidly.
- Remote work solutions for public and private organizations. Some telecom operators are offering access to conferencing and telework systems for free, while others have lifted restrictions on instant communications services over the internet. Governments have revamped the use of e-services to continue delivering to citizens and firms.
Our early observations demonstrate that both governments and industry have responded quickly to the crisis in the short term, often by strengthening public-private collaboration. Now deeper and broader collaboration is needed, both within and across countries, to address impending challenges: unequal internet access that exacerbates the digital divide, and weak data protection and cybersecurity systems that can pose risks to citizens, businesses, and governments.
The author is grateful for contributions provided by Rami Amin and Oualid Bachiri.