Big Interview

ITU: A year in review

Malcolm Johnson ITU - 16.9.jpg

A new year requires new thinking and reflection on the past. Natalie Bannerman speaks to the ITU’s deputy secretary-general, Malcolm Johnson, about where we’re headed.

As 2020 draws to a close, the industry is forced to take stock of what has been an unparalleled year for not just telecoms but the entire world. So, who better to discuss these macro-level changes with than Malcolm Johnson, deputy secretary-general at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The topic of Covid-19 is an unavoidable one. From the impact of the lockdown and subsequent remote working and e-learning, its effect on revenues and supply chains, to the jump it has given in the infrastructure space — its influence cannot be understated.

Speaking on the subject, Johnson shares: “The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as never before.

“During lockdown, ICTs continue to allow billions of people around the world to work, study, care for others and remain connected. We must give credit to the telecoms industry, network operators and platform providers that responded so successfully to the huge increase in demand.”

He added that while some have taken different routes to supporting customers, it is the collective work of both industry and regulators to maintain connectivity that has been most impressive.

“What’s been achieved by the industry — an industry of people that have also experienced illness and loss — has been extraordinary. The year 2020 was one of innovation and collaboration,” says Johnson. “This has accelerated digital transformation across sectors. We don’t envisage ever reverting to a pre-pandemic landscape.”

Speaking of a new landscape it comes as no surprise that there are some long-term changes ahead, largely centred on how we collaborate internationally.

“The most significant long-term effect on the industry will be the international collaboration, cooperation and coordination between all stakeholders, public and private, that will continue to be essential to curb the pandemic,” explains Johnson.

“Such collaboration will also be necessary to deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda by 2030. Only when we all work together, bringing our own specific competencies to the table, avoiding duplication of effort and pooling our resources for the common good, will we succeed. With Covid-19 nobody will be safe until everyone is safe.”

Unsurprisingly he adds that the ITU has been working to analyse information and insight from its members, extracting best practices, trends and emerging issues around the pandemic, which includes everything from furloughing to redundancies as well as other, more strategic trends.

But enough with what has been, I’m more curious to know what will be and there is no better place to start than the full commercialisation of 5G and, dare I say it, 6G. Although the jury is still out on the latter, the former is making excellent progress with the ITU in full support of its growth.

“The ITU World Radiocommunication Conference last year amended the international treaty on the use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits, the Radio Regulations, to add an additional 17.25GHz of spectrum for 5G — eight times more spectrum than was previously available,” Johnson says.

“This harmonised spectrum will facilitate the deployment of 5G mobile networks worldwide, ensure interconnection and interoperability and reduce costs through economies of scale.”

Interestingly he shares that the ITU is studying the integration of satellite communications in the 5G ecosystem — a project we should all keep an eye out for in the near future.

“This will make it possible for 5G broadband access to more affordably reach today’s unserved rural and remote communities,” adds Johnson. “Several new low-earth orbiting satellite networks are being planned in which thousands of small simple satellites promise to provide world-wide coverage with low latency and at more affordable prices.”

In line with this innovative 5G work, Johnson also highlights trust, security and digital skills as additional areas of development for 2021.

“The global shift to digital during this crisis has been accompanied by a massive spike in cybercrime,” he says. “Trust and security are essential and technologies to enhance cybersecurity, as well as expertise to address the ongoing safety concerns, will be at the forefront in 2021.”

As for digital skills, ITU has released the Digital Skills Assessment Guidebook to help countries, in particular developing countries, undertake national digital skills assessments, recognising that the lack of such skills remains a major barrier to the uptake and effective use of the internet.

“Skills development — from entry level skills to allow people among marginalised groups and populations in poorer countries to access the internet, to high-level cybersecurity expertise — will be an urgent issue to address.”

Secondary areas of focus for the organisation include big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Given Johnson’s history as former director of the ITU’s telecommunication standardisation bureau, we of course had to discuss the future of this work, particularly in relation to interoperability.

“International technical standards are essential to ensure that new technologies are deployed efficiently and at scale,” explains Johnson, while “international standards ensure interoperability, create competition in the global market, protect and encourage key investments, and reduce costs through economies of scale”.

By way of example, he says advancements in knowledge discovery and data mining hold promise for the healthcare industry.

“However, the technology used in the health sector must comply with international standards to ensure interoperability and security,” he adds. “The continuing development of international standards for ICT equipment and services, and the harmonisation of the use of radio spectrum are among ITU’s core competencies.”

As one of the biggest champions of diversity and inclusion across the sector, our conversation sets the tone for the year ahead.

“As an industry, we need to embrace diversity, improving opportunities for a wider group of people to work within the industry, and enhancing the services and products we offer for people from all backgrounds, abilities, ages and genders,” he says.

“ITU recognises that principles of universal design, affordability and equal opportunities to access ICTs and assistive technologies are key to building inclusive societies. I am proud that ITU was one of the first international standards bodies to address accessibility issues.”

In response, the ITU has implemented its Digital Inclusion Programme, among others, which promotes accessibility as a means to empower all people.

“Gender inclusion is a very important objective for ITU, and we lead many programmes to help move the industry forward in this regard. International Girls in ICT Day has become part of a global movement to inspire girls and young women to learn more about the amazing opportunities offered by the ICT sector.”

In addition, the ITU co-founded the EQUALS initiative with UN Women.

In relation to over-the-tops (OTTs) and their place in the industry, the consensus is, they’re here to stay. At the 2018 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai, ITU membership unanimously passed a resolution on OTTs.

“ITU membership recognised that mutual cooperation between OTTs and telecommunication operators can foster innovative, sustainable, viable business models and their positive roles in impacting socio-economic benefits,” says Johnson.

As the conversation winds down, Johnson says that the focus for ITU in 2021, is keeping people at the heart of everything.

“Around the world, 3.6 billion people are still not connected to the internet, mostly those living in rural areas and remote communities. That is why our core mission is to connect everyone everywhere,” he says.

“It is now well recognised that ICTs are a key part of building back better, for more inclusive healthcare and education, more sustainable business practices, and for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. This is a challenge.”

Last September, the UN General Assembly published the Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals in response to the realisation that the world was not on track to deliver them by 2030.

“Our priorities are to leverage the potential of ICTs as never before, to deliver on the Sustainable Development Agenda and create a more sustainable future,” he adds.

If that weren’t enough, the organisation remains dedicated to “meet the challenges of Covid-19 and to advance progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, despite the pandemic”.