There’s no doubt of the importance of high-speed internet connectivity to economic and social development. As consumers, workers, entrepreneurs or merely citizens, we all benefit from its applications, products and the systems it enables.

ITU Forum

Indeed, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ’s core mandate is connecting the unconnected – which means bringing the digitally disenfranchised of the world online, often those in remote and rural regions, in developing countries and from underrepresented groups such as women, older people, or the disabled.

Given that some 90% of the world’s population is already able to access at least 2G or 3G mobile data services, why is internet access stuck at just above 51%? What are the stumbling blocks to seeing the benefits of the digital age reaching more and more people across the globe?

The simple answer is that connectivity alone is not enough.

This is not to disregard the enormous difficulties in terms of investment costs and infrastructure deployment in what are often challenging topographies, with scattered populations, little or no access to reliable energy sources and markets that render current business models economically inviable.

These are real barriers to access, which require enormous creativity and innovation to overcome. But to really make a difference, connectivity needs to be supported by access to affordable devices, government awareness initiatives, digital literacy programmes, solutions and applications which are relevant to the local context and daily lives of new users.

Making connectivity meaningful is a whole new set of challenges – one that ITU Telecom World 2019 is happy to face head on. The leading tech event for governments, big industry players and SMEs, ITU Telecom World is organized each year by ITU, the UN’s principal agency for information and communication technologies. Taking place this year from 9 – 12 September in Budapest, Hungary, on the theme of “Innovating together: connectivity that matters”, the event will host a forum of expert-led critical debates addressing how we can collaborate across sectors and international boundaries to ensure the digital economy is not just accessible, but relevant, equitable and safe for all.

What new partnerships, regulatory approaches, government initiatives or industry models can impact on increasing meaningful connectivity? Can we create a culture of responsible innovation aimed at improving lives everywhere? How can the public sector, international organizations and industry bodies work together to mitigate digital exclusion?

These are questions which go to the very heart of the digital society in which many of us already live – and which is expanding exponentially, risking a further deepening of the divide between the connected and the unconnected.

Technological developments are crucial to increasing meaningful connectivity and bridging the divide. These include the range of new players, applications, and use cases in the world of satellites, such as small satellites, LEOs, HAPS and non-GSO constellations, with the potential to open up global, affordable access and new services.

Then there’s the growth of 5G as the key enabler of tomorrow’s digital economy, linking smartphones and wireless sensors, powering smart sustainable cities and the fourth industrial revolution. Its unprecedented potential is so great that many 5G services and applications are yet to be discovered, created or understood. But where do we really stand on 5G deployment, what policies and frameworks do we need to accelerate its implementation, and what should the role of government and private sectors be? Is 5G a springboard to the digital society in developing markets, can it be used to meet basic human needs as well as commercial and industrial ends, or will it increase that divide?

The same questions apply to the future of broadband and the rapid expansion of machine learning and AI. How can we capitalize on the potential of AI to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity – and not leave anyone behind?

Ensuring connectivity is equitable means establishing the digital principles and values of our increasingly digital future. As machine learning and AI develop, so too does the risk of replicating the biases of the limited few inputting the data behind those powerful algorithms – with potential dramatic ramifications for individuals across, for example, the justice system, employment and financial sectors.

Dismantling the barriers of disability with technology, creating better accessibility and access to services is critical to inclusion.

Consumers need to be educated and informed on the importance of data management, from those in developed markets all too happy to trade their privacy for the convenience of connected devices in the home, to the new consumers coming on line in developing markets potentially unaware of the dangers of cyberspace.

Digital skills, from basic computer literacy to data scientists, must be a government imperative in the digital age. Connectivity without digital literacy is, after all, like a bicycle without wheels – a great idea in principle, but going nowhere.

Sharing ideas, experiences, case studies and good practice is essential – as are public private partnerships, cross sector partnerships, international partnerships. Making connectivity meaningful is too big a task for any single player. ITU Telecom World 2019 will bring answers to some of these questions, lay the groundwork for potential partnerships – and provide inspiration for shaping a digital future that is accessible, relevant and beneficial for us all.

ITU Telecom World 2019 takes place in Budapest, Hungary, from 9 – 12 September 2019.

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