The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented changes to the way we lead our lives and our reliance on ICT connectivity has grown even faster than before. However, the region is also one of the most digitally divided, with less than 14 percent of the population connected to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet.
As shown in the figure below, while fixed-broadband is accessible to most of the population in two of the three income groups, fixed-broadband subscriptions remain unaffordable for more than half of the population for the Asia-Pacific Least Developed Countries, Small island Developing States and Landlocked Developing countries, identified in the “low and lower-middle income” income group. A total of 44 per cent of households in developing countries of the region have Internet access at home, which means that those who relied on the Internet from work or school have lost their access during the lockdowns.
Affordability of fixed-broadband subscriptions in Asia and the Pacific (2018)
Even for those that do have access, quality (speed and delays) and affordability often keep the Internet out of reach. Those that are less digitally connected and equipped appear to be more vulnerable to the devastating effects of the isolation caused by pandemic and poor children may be the ones to bear the heaviest burden. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more they will fall behind their connected peers who are participating in distance learning.
One of the key constraining factors is that investment in next generation infrastructure has lagged. So even maintaining the momentum is not enough--accelerated momentum is needed. We need a big push that will see connectivity double by 2025 and achieve universality by 2030.
With that objective in mind, in 2017, ESCAP member States launched the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) initiative.
In its next phase of implementation, we have the opportunity to make it fit for purpose in a post-COVID-19 era. We need to build resilient infrastructure networks that can withstand crisis-driven surges in demands as well as disasters of the future. Such networks will be expensive. One cost-effective way of deploying fiber-optic cables, is to co-deploy them along other passive infrastructure networks such as highway, road, railway and power networks. Notably, if cables are installed concurrently with new highway or railway projects, significant cost savings can be achieved. Around 80-90% of costs are related to digging/excavation work and obtaining rights of way, so “dig once, use many times” is a cost-effective way of bringing connectivity to the underserved or unconnected people. Furthermore, such co-deployment goes hand in hand with the development of smart infrastructure transport systems and power grids. In North and Central Asia, three such potential smart corridors have been identified.
We should also look into future opportunities that emerging technologies may offer. The experience of COVID-19 shows that digital services and risk analytics have enhanced the capacities of well-connected countries in early detection, rapid diagnostics, and the new generation of tele-heath, saving countless lives. Recurrent disasters amid COVID-19 present an unprecedented cascading risk scenario, while the lifesaving services in the future crisis are going to be delivered digitally.
Hence, the development of appropriate ICT infrastructure networks to support new generation technologies is critical in addition to leveraging the benefits space applications can bring. The authors of the Asia-Pacific Plan of Action on Space Applications for Sustainable Development (2018–2030) adopted in 2018, long before the pandemic hit, had great foresight in requesting the Secretariat and its member States to research how satellite navigation and positioning, space-derived data, big data analytics and mapping of health risk hotspots can contain present and future spread of disease and pandemics. The Space Plan of Action also identifies the need for research on tele-health solutions using space technology to improve emergency health capacities.
Innovative ICT and space applications play an important role in providing essential location-based and temporal data for tackling regional and global challenges such as COVID-19. There is a natural link between spatial information and epidemiology – not only for contact tracing, but also for many potential and unpredictable trends and risks. Space-derived information, including satellite images and positioning, are also a powerful tool when physical access to a disaster impacted area is impossible. Digital connectivity, collectively and in cooperation, must be further accelerated and innovation leveraged so no one is left behind. Only, in this way, we will be closer to a sustainable future, the future we want.