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Communicators seek collaborative efforts to address the digital divide

UCC executive director George William Nyombi Thembo

UCC executive director George William Nyombi Thembo

Regulators of telecommunication sectors from around the world have called for collaborative efforts amongst governments, private sector, civil society, telecommunication regulators and the average citizen if the world is to achieve 100 per cent connectivity and solve the existing digital divide.

This plea was made during the 23rd Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR) organized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN specialized agency for information and communications technologies which took place from July 1 to July 4 at Speke Resort Munyonyo under the theme ‘Regulating for Impact.’

Approximately 800 delegates, including some of the world’s leading telecommunication and ICT regulators, policymakers, and industry leaders are attending the symposium, which provides a platform for conversations on emerging issues with a view to strengthen the impact of regulation of the telecommunication and ICT sectors in the digital age.

Even though technology has become the backbone of modern life, 2.6 billion people globally largely in developing countries remain unconnected. This translates to one third of the global population who are in digital darkness with women and other vulnerable groups on the wrong side of the globe’s digital divide.

During the symposium, George William Nyombi Thembo, the executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) called for urgent action and the need for telecommunication regulators to be at the forefront of initiating dynamic regulatory interventions to ensure that this number of unconnected people reduces rapidly.

“Access to the internet is no longer a luxury, it has become an absolute necessity denial of which means denial to essential services like education, medical care, financial inclusion among others. The lack of connectivity curtails not only the social economic development of individuals but it cascades upwards and affects the entire nation.”

He added, “We cannot talk of poverty reduction and sustainable development without interrogating how these can be impacted by enhanced and global usage of the internet.”

Nyombi therefore noted that the only way they can achieve their goal of making an impact in the sector which will also links to achieving the sustainable development goals is through collaboration because without collaboration, all individual efforts as admirable and ambitious as they are at making an impact on the different stakeholders, they serve will remain a siloed effort.

“We need to adopt a collaborative approach to formulating policies that are inclusive and make significant investments in building the infrastructure that will lead to the unconnected populations receiving connectivity and also being effectively empowered on using the various digital tools available,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is for digital inclusion and digital equity; a connected world where each individual can purposely thrive in a digital era,” Nyombi said adding, “While the task ahead of us of bridging the digital divide seems immense, it seems so only because we are looking at it through individual lenses. What makes this challenge surmountable is if we look at it through a collaborative lens.”

Bocar Aba, the CEO of Samena Telecommunications Council, who chaired the industry advisory group on development matters and private sector chief regulator officers meeting, said the meeting focused on the need for collective actions to achieve 100 per cent connectivity and participants emphasized the urgent need to expand internet access for the remaining 2.6 billion unconnected people by 2040.

He noted that the discussions highlighted the necessity of intensified collaboration between terrestrial and non-terrestrial service providers, as well as between service providers and regulators to adapt regulatory frameworks, establish fair market access conditions, reduce sector specific fees and taxes including the high cost of spectrum and ensuring smartphones are available, streamlining licensing regimes, enabling predictable and sustainable network investment and encouraging partnerships with local operators.

Participants further recommended promoting private public partnerships to accelerate deployment in underserved areas and implementing regulatory sandboxes to taste new technologies on a much smaller scale.

A creation of a technical advisory group to provide targeted technical expertise was also suggested to ensure effective collaboration and avoid over regulation.

“The meeting reaffirmed the private sector’s commitment to supporting governments particularly regulators in achieving common goals in both the near and long term. Participants agreed to play a more active role in supporting digital development, recruit more private sector members and use existing networks to advance national digital transformation agendas,” Bocar Aba said.

Dr Chris Baryomunsi, the minister of Information and ICT, acknowledged that indeed there is a huge digital divide between the Global North and the Global South, with Africa lagging behind and, therefore, since many governments have put in place ministries and departments in the charge of digital transformation, there is need to work together not only at the continental level but also within the global framework to ensure that the key objectives of integrating technology in our programs are realized.

Uganda’s communication sector has registered growth over the last 25 years with the total number of fixed and mobile telephone customers rising from 68, 196 in 1998 to over 36.5 million today. Internet users have risen to 15.3 million while mobile subscriptions are at 40.6 million.

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