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COVID-19 has been impacting all industries ever since it started to spread to all parts of the world. Governmental entities and United Nations bodies have been playing a key role in countering the ensuing challenges. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Bilel Jamoussi, chief of the ITU-T study groups department, elaborated more on the ITU’s response to COVID-19 and the importance of digital transformation and emerging technologies in such challenging times.

How did COVID-19 affect ITU standardization activities?

ITU’s global membership includes 193 Member States and over 900 companies, universities and international and regional organizations. Our members come together on the neutral ITU platform to build international agreements that provide a common basis for ICT growth and innovation worldwide.

Technical standardization is a highly collaborative process. ITU standards are developed iteration by iteration, consensus decision by consensus decision, propelled by the contributions and associated debates of the diverse ITU membership.

COVID-19 called for this highly collaborative process to move entirely into the virtual sphere. 

This transition has demanded rapid behavioral change and ITU members have embraced this change with impressive resolve. ITU members are working hand in hand with the staff of the ITU secretariat to master new ways of working based on expert command of ITU’s advanced virtual working facilities.

Since January 2020, the management of ITU’s standardization bureau has been consistent in our strategy and resolve to move meetings into virtual space rather than cancel or postpone them. This guiding principle has served the ITU standardization very well. Our dialogue with the management teams of our various expert groups highlighted the options available in virtual space and the positive experiences of other expert groups that had already succeeded in holding fully virtual meetings. This consistent approach and supporting dialogue were critical in managing the significant change required to transition to fully virtual meetings. 

ITU members are making full use of the personalized MyWorkspace platform, a mobile-optimized platform providing access to virtual meeting facilities, directories of ITU standards experts, machine translation services, and tools to customize subscriptions to ITU mailing lists and alerts concerning working documents and meeting schedules.

We have gained valuable experience along the way.

We are refining our working methods and supporting tools and services with the help of a continuous feedback loop between ITU members and secretariat staff. And, most importantly, we are developing a strong understanding of the behaviors that best position these tools for success.

We are working together across very different time zones and without the visual cues present in a meeting room, but we have succeeded in maintaining the respect for due process that has enabled the ITU standardization platform to earn the trust of ICT innovators worldwide.

How did digital transformation play a role in these difficult times?

The events of 2020 have shown us exactly where we stand in digital transformation.

The ITU secretariat in Geneva facilitates the work of ITU’s diverse membership. We take every opportunity to improve the services provided to our members. ITU is known for our advanced meeting facilities in Geneva as well as our efforts to be the world’s most inclusive standardization platform. ITU’s virtual working facilities make a key contribution to both the efficiency and inclusivity of the ITU standardization process.

We have invested considerably in enhancing ITU’s virtual working environment in recent years and COVID-19 has accelerated the return on this investment. We could not have known that COVID-19 would alter the course of 2020 as it has, but years of investment meant that ITU was well prepared. COVID-19 was certainly a stress test for the ITU tools and services enabling our virtual working environment, but these tools and services have passed this test with flying colors. 2020 has shown ITU’s digital transformation to be at an advanced stage and very much in tune with the needs of ITU members – our investments in digital transformation look set to yield a consistent stream of future returns to our membership.

All organizations, in every sector, have received a similar indication of where they stand in digital transformation.

ICTs have been a key ally in helping health services prevent, detect and diagnose cases, while also keeping people safe, productive and connected. COVID-19 has highlighted the fundamental importance of ICTs to the economy and society, with ICTs helping life to go on by supporting continued access to education, healthcare, and essential goods and services.

ICTs are enabling the early detection of COVID-19 outbreaks and the efficient monitoring of people living in affected areas. We see the value of AI solutions for outbreak detection and symptom classification. And with personal data involved, we see renewed interested in privacy-preserving technologies and their applications. 

Businesses have become dependent on remote collaboration tools and here COVID-19 has stimulated innovation, with a variety of new and improved tools coming to market.

We have also been offered a powerful reminder of the all-encompassing challenge of cybersecurity. With social and economic activity moving almost entirely online, we have seen a spate of cyberattacks capitalizing on this wider attack surface.

2020 has highlighted where we stand in digital transformation and associated challenges still to be overcome. And above all, 2020 has highlighted the importance of digital transformation.

How did ITU support countries in navigating the challenges posed by COVID-19?

The speed and efficiency of our response to emergencies is proportional to the level of preparedness. ITU launched new guidelines to assist countries develop national emergency telecommunication plans. ITU also launched the Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID) to support policymakers, regulators and industry players in contending with the increasing stress placed on ICT networks.

We also continue to benefit from the work of the ITU-UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, in particular the commission’s Working Group on Epidemic Preparedness. The working group was established in September 2017 and delivered its findings in September 2018 with a report titled “Preventing the Spread of Epidemics Using ICT”.

We have seen renewed emphasis on all areas of ITU work capable of contributing to epidemic preparedness. We see prime examples in AI, smart cities and digital financial services.

AI solutions for outbreak prediction and symptom classification the subjects of dedicated workstreams within the ITU-WHO Focus Group on AI for Health, a multi-stakeholder effort working towards the establishment of a framework and associated processes for the performance benchmarking of ‘AI for Health’ solutions. 

More than 100 cities worldwide are measuring their progress using ‘Key Performance Indicators for Smart Sustainable Cities’ based on ITU standards, indicators promoted by the United for Smart Sustainable Cities Initiative (U4SSC), an initiative supported by 17 UN bodies. The U4SSC implementation program – supporting cities’ pursuit of the SDGs – includes a workstream dedicated to capturing the best practices established by cities’ response to COVID-19.

The Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) is a three-year program of collective action led by ITU, the World Bank Group and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative is designed to advance research in digital finance and accelerate digital financial inclusion in developing countries. In a series of webinars, the FIGI community has shared insight into the role played by telecoms services, digital payments and fintech in preparing for and responding to pandemics, highlighting lessons learnt from associated actions taken by governments and other digital finance stakeholders during the response to COVID-19.

In your opinion, what are the gaps at the level of ICTs that the pandemic has highlighted?

We see that questions around connectivity, security, privacy and trust are relevant to every single one of us, and that many of these questions remain in need of answers.

Achieving stable electricity supply and reliable connectivity in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) will be fundamental to these countries’ ability to benefit from advances in ICT. Without stable electricity and reliable connectivity, digital transformation is not possible.

Security defenses must be largely technical, procedural and administrative. In addition to regulations, voluntary standards are an important tool to support reliable and predictable management of risk. Businesses of all sizes, in every sector, need to rally around good security practices, and working together in associated standardization efforts can be an effective avenue to achieve that. Equally important is the need for all industries and public-sector bodies to develop a culture of security awareness – security is only as strong as its weakest link, and there are many links in today’s complex value chains. 

The pressures placed on ICT networks have highlighted the importance of the continued development of ICT infrastructure.

The demands on ICT infrastructure have shone a spotlight on the importance of 5G rollout in particular. Our networks have struggled to contend with the increased demand for connectivity, but we have also seen a range innovative use cases of 5G demonstrated during the pandemic in fields such as healthcare, public safety, education and manufacturing.

ICTs are expected to provide a reliable platform for hyperconnected economic and social activity from 2020 to 2030. 5G systems are expected to deliver a range of the new capabilities required to offer this platform.

5G mobile broadband will support a highly interactive communications experience rich in multimedia. We will become accustomed to communicating via HD video and advanced Virtual Reality applications. These systems will also support massive-scale internet of things, and users will benefit from associated applications in smart homes and smart cities.

But perhaps the most notable feature of emerging 5G systems is their promise to support ICT-enabled innovation in other industry sectors. Alongside enhanced mobile broadband and the internet of things (IoT), 5G systems will support ultra-reliable and low latency communications for applications such as automated vehicles, telemedicine and collaborative robotics. 5G systems will be agile all-round players able to meet the requirements of a diverse set of ICT applications.

Data tracing applications are being used during COVID-19 to monitor patients. This has raised the issue of data privacy. What is your view on this question?

COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of debates surrounding the appropriate use of data, especially personal data. These questions are highly relevant to all industries and public-sector bodies, and every ICT user.

AI and data are inseparable, and we know that advances in knowledge discovery and data mining hold great promise for the health sector. This is another area where our ‘AI for Health’ Focus Group could deliver considerable value – this group is improving our understanding of how we could best navigate the challenges surrounding access to health data and the appropriate use of that data.

But all sectors are looking to make smarter use of data. We see prime examples in healthcare, financial services and smart cities. We often hear that data is fast becoming one of the most important productive resources to our modern economies.

Building trust and confidence in the use of digital technologies is of one ITU’s priorities. ITU standardization work address the technical dimensions of data processing and management, including data protection. ITU standards also provide technical approaches specific to the protection of personal data (‘Personally Identifiable Information’).

ITU is a technical organization. Our mandate is to develop technical enablers for the global ICT ecosystem. But ITU is glad to provide a neutral platform for discussions around policy and regulatory questions relevant to data management, and we see notable examples in the AI for Good Global Summit, the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative, the Digital Currency Global Initiative and the United for Smart Sustainable Cities Initiative.

ITU advocates for both security-by-design and privacy-by-design.

We commend the G20 Digital Economy Ministers for affirming in April that data related to COVID-19 should be collected and processed in an ethical, transparent, safe, interoperable, and secure manner that protects the privacy and data security of individuals.

AI has captured imaginations worldwide and COVID-19 has reinvigorated discussions around AI. What is your view on prospects for AI application in the coming decade?

Recent breakthroughs in AI are inspiring growing confidence in AI. We are seeing evidence of this in the contributions driving ITU work. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are gaining a progressively larger share of the ITU standardization work program in fields such as network orchestration and management, multimedia coding, service quality assessment, digital health, environmental efficiency and autonomous driving.

AI will gradually come to influence almost all aspects of society. This is why ITU has called for inclusive global dialogue on the implications of AI for the future of our society, dialogue anchored by the AI for Good Global Summit. We recognize that the scope of this debate extends far beyond the scope of any single organization. It is crucial that all of us – government, industry, academia and civil society – consider how AI will affect our future.

New partnerships are also supporting growing confidence in AI. Experts from different fields of expertise are coming together to align incentives for innovation and solve problems with AI. We see connections forming among AI specialists, AI users, data owners and experts in domains to benefit from AI applications – domains where could make key contributions to sustainable development. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are providing a key guiding light to this innovation.

We have touched on a number of the questions raised by COVID-19. How can ITU contribute to global efforts to address these questions? 

International standardization is key to ITU’s value proposition.

ITU offers a neutral venue for ICT stakeholders to develop international standards meeting their need for common platforms for growth and innovation.

A variety of ICT innovations have emerged in response to COVID-19. We welcome you to discuss these innovations on the ITU platform. We continue to learn new lessons about digital health, and new lessons about data processing and management. Working together at the international level can help us to transform these lessons into ICT advances on a global scale, advances to improve the quality of life enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

ICTs are enabling innovation in every industry sector. This highlights the importance of inclusive dialogue.

ITU continues to promote cooperation among the growing number of stakeholders in ICT innovation. Standardization is a key avenue for new partners to build mutual trust and understanding, and we see new partners moving forward together in ITU standardization work for sectors such as energy, transport, healthcare, financial services, agriculture, smart cities, and AI and machine learning.

Here we see the value of open platforms such as ITU focus groups and collaboration initiatives like the AI for Good Global Summit, the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative, the Digital Currency Global Initiative and the United for Smart Sustainable Cities Initiative. These platforms support the development of new partnerships in emerging fields of ICT innovation. They are important in clarifying the contributions expected of various stakeholders, including the contribution expected of ITU standardization.

What is the significance of the 2020 milestone for the ICT industry?

Our economies are undergoing significant structural transformation, digital transformation built on advances ICT. The global ICT market already interacts with all other markets, but ICTs are certain to become even more engrained in our economies and societies over the coming decade.

2020 is a key milestone for the ICT industry. We will see the introduction of IMT-2020/5G systems. The internet of things is maturing, stimulating efforts to build smart sustainable cities. AI and machine learning are finding very practical applications across industry sectors. The rise of software-driven network orchestration and management is giving networks the agility required to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse range of ICT applications.

Ten years remain to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and ICTs are expected to provide an enabling platform for the considerable innovation required to achieve these goals. The ICT industry continues to build new partnerships in support of ICT-enabled innovation to achieve greater efficiency and sustainable across our economies.

How are these industry developments impacting the work of ITU?

ITU continues to grow in inclusivity.

ICTs have become more advanced, more accessible and more affordable. Digital transformation has taken hold in every industry sector. As ICT innovation has expanded in scope, we have seen demand for ITU membership from a more diverse range of players. This year ITU introduced a new category of membership for SMEs, following the new category introduced for Academia in 2011.

We have also seen new ITU memberships reflecting the increasing diversity of ICT applications supported by ITU standardization. New ITU members include companies in energy and utilities, shipping and logistics, mobile payments, over-the-top applications, automotive, visible light communication, blockchain, AI and quantum information technology.

ITU has spent many years bringing ICT decision-makers together with decision-makers in other sectors, but the last five years have seen a marked acceleration of ICT-enabled innovation in other industry sectors. ICTs are central to every sector’s ambitions for the next decade of innovation.

The is the backdrop for the upcoming ITU World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly 2020 (WTSA-20) in Hyderabad, India.

WTSA is held every four years to refine the strategy and structure of ITU’s standardization arm (ITU-T). ITU members are concluding major standardization projects and looking to the future of ITU standardization in their preparations for the upcoming four years of standardization. WTSA is a key opportunity for ITU members to ensure that ITU remains well positioned to serve emerging standardization demands.

The response to COVID-19 has offered yet more evidence of the enduring importance of ITU’s work to connect the world, and yet more evidence of ITU members’ dedication to this work.

WTSA will consider the new subjects entering the ITU standardization work program, the new communities joining the ITU membership and the expanding array of ICT applications supported by ITU standardization. It will ensure that the strategy and structure of ITU-T continues to meet the needs of ICT stakeholders worldwide, stakeholders that continue to grow in number and diversity.

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