By Joakim Reiter, Vodafone Group Chief External Affairs Officer
Speaking at the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) in Bucharest, Romania on 25 September 2022.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs). The Plenipotentiary Conference (PP), ITU’s highest policy-making body, meets once every four years to set the Union’s general policies, adopt the four-year strategic and financial plans, and elect the senior management team of the organization, the Member States of the Council, and the members of the Radio Regulations Board.
It is an honour to address you all on behalf of Vodafone. Before I begin, I would like to thank the government of Romania for hosting this important conference, and for its warm hospitality.
I have just come from attending UNGA, where the UN Secretary General highlighted the challenges the world faces. He warned of great perils, I quote: “trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding, our planet is burning. People are hurting, with the most vulnerable suffering the most."
At the point when we had hoped to resurface from a devastating health crisis, the world now faces a perfect storm. The pandemic already led to enormous human suffering, exposed deep inequalities, and created new dividing lines within our societies.
Today, faced with a multitude of crises, the SDGs are truly at jeopardy.
As we saw during COVID, digital technologies can play a critical part in overcoming these challenges. And this puts the ITU – and this conference – directly at the heart of our collective response to ensure the SDGs remain on track.
But it depends on how well we, collectively, utilise the power of digital for good.
This is what I would like to talk about with you here today. In doing so, I will make four pleas, but I also have one ask.
In a nutshell, as Vodafone, we want digitisation to serve five essential P’s – people; poverty; prosperity; planet; and partnerships – to build more resilient, stronger and inclusive digital societies.
Let me explain by beginning with people.
Almost three billion people – around a third of the world’s population – are not utilising the power of the Internet. This matters, because people matters. The economic benefits of internet usage are clear: The World Bank has shown that a 10% increase in mobile penetration in Africa could yield a 2.5% increase in GDP per capita.
With network coverage already at 94% of the world’s population, the next essential task – to overcoming this gap – is affordability of smartphones.
That’s why we’ve worked alongside the ITU and the UN to create the first multistakeholder study that identifies concrete actions for achieving universal, affordable smartphone access. We are determined to turn the findings of this report into concrete actions.
Because, as you know well, universal access to technology also empowers the most marginalised people in society, which leads me to my second P - poverty.
COVID-19 taught us hard lessons about the immense value, and absolute necessity, of truly democratising technology. Whether this is the “lost generation” of children missing out on schooling, or the SMEs facing severe losses, COVID’s impact was hugely unequal.
Today’s challenges will widen societal divides even further – unless we can ensure digital is accessible to everyone.
Connecting the unconnected is one key lever. That’s why Vodafone has pledged to invest $190 million over the next five years to expand African 4G coverage to an additional eighty million people.
Another key lever is financial inclusion, such as our African fintech solution M-PESA. With over 52m customers, this is having already a real impact: M-PESA has lifted 1m Kenyans out of absolutely poverty.
Building on its success, we are now doubling down on more targeted digital farming, health and education solutions, focussing on the people and small businesses who need it most.
Because we all know digital innovations can unlock the potential of our societies and fast-track development of lower income countries. Hence, my third P is prosperity.
The numbers speak for themselves: the digital economy is worth 15.5% of the world economy, growing two and a half times faster than global GDP over the past 15 years.
5G – combined with technologies including AI, IoT, big data and blockchain – are about to transform every industrial sector and every supply chain. Digital is becoming the tide that can lift all boats. Globally, 5G alone is estimated to add economic activity worth 8 trillion US dollars.
But, with this also comes a warning: Any country which does not have 5G or slips behind in the deployment and use of 5G, will be rapidly left behind. Every country will need to ensure their populations and businesses can capture the full prosperity potential of digital.
In doing so, it is upon all of us to use digital to find new growth paths, but also ones that avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Which brings me to my fourth P: planet.
With our planet in an existential crisis, all available tools need to be deployed to halt climate change - including digital.
We now need to make everything smart – smart grids, smart cities, smart transport. We know that smart city energy initiatives alone can reduce power consumption by 43%. If we also make a decisive shift to green energy sources, we stand a better chance of halting accelerating global warming.
As Vodafone, we are rapidly decarbonising all our networks and supply chains, to achieve net zero by 2040 – even 2030 for own operations. Also, not least through our IoT platform – one of the largest in the world – we are aiming to enable our customers to save carbon emissions totalling 350 million tonnes of Co2 from now until 2030 – equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of Italy.
Which brings me to my final P – partnership - the key that unlocks all others. But, as I said, also the one concrete ask that I have for all of you today.
Because digitalisation is not a given. It’s the result of hard work and clear decisions. And it is in no-one's interests to see any country fall behind.
This is why we want to work with you, to build a policy framework that crowds in investments, accelerates innovation and truly delivers for People, Poverty, Prosperity and Planet.
To achieve this together, we must be willing to align our policies to the overarching objective of accelerating digital transformation:
- Firstly, by fairer and more reasonable spectrum auctions that incentivise investment.
- Secondly, by allowing market structure that underpin growth, investment and innovation.
- And finally, by fixing our skewed digital ecosystems so that over-the-top players contribute towards the massive infrastructure costs of carrying their traffic.
My request to you, as leaders within the ITU, is to use this global institution to work with industry. We need concerted action and common solutions. We need to act with a great sense of urgency. And we need to be willing to partner, and dare to be bold, in the same ways we did during the height of COVID.
Together, we can aspire to a sustainable, inclusive digital world.
As Vodafone, we will play our part.
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