The value of connectivity: How COVID-19 turned us into digital societies

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

OECD Tackling coronavirus (COVID‑19) Contributing to a global effort

Technology and co-operation, through telecommunications infrastructure and the Internet, have become our most powerful weapons in fighting the coronavirus and joining us as a society.

As confinement measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic were implemented, the benefits of being digitalised have materialised to their full potential. Once corporate office spaces were shut, teleworking from home became mandatory to sustain business activity; companies that were not ready had to implement such remote working systems in a short time. In the same fashion, governments, public administrations and multilateral organisations caught up in their use of digital tools, such as videoconferencing or messaging systems, and revamped their processes in order to digitise them. With the closure of schools and universities, the educational community adopted digital tools to maintain their teaching activity, now remotely. Despite widespread limitation of in-person gatherings and mandatory home confinement, we were able to remain in touch with our loved ones and access all kinds of content, including entertainment, gaming and educational and cultural resources.  

Read the OECD's COVID-19 policy response: 

"A systemic resilience approach to dealing with Covid-19 and future shocks"

http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/keeping-the-internet-up-and-running-in-times-of-crisis-4017c4c9/

COVID-19 will most likely be studied as one of the single most relevant catalysers of digitalisation for businesses and societies in the 2020s:

  • The intensity of digitalisation is increasing. In Spain, bandwidth demand was up by 40% in the first weeks of confinement, with mobile traffic growing 50% and 25% in voice and data, respectively.
  • Adoption is also on the rise. In Chile, demand for fibre connections has experienced a sharp increase in the last weeks of March. While fibre (FTTH) clients were growing by 50% year-on-year in the last and first quarter of 2019 and 2020, respectively, in the second quarter of 2020 it peaked to 57%.

The health emergency has also put in sharper focus the need for strong telecommunications networks as the foundational pillar to access digitalisation. People and businesses everywhere must be connected to best-in-class resilient and high-quality networks.

At Telefónica we are fully aware of the relevance of ultrahigh broadband telecommunication networks. In Spain, we have been actively deploying fibre (FTTH) for the last 12 years. In 2008 our country was lagging behind in Europe in the deployment of fibre to homes, but in just six years it has moved to the top of the European ranking. Today, Spain has the most kilometres of fibre to the home network, surpassing France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy as a whole. In the OECD, only Korea and Japan have deployed more kilometres of fibre to homes. Telefónica has already converted to fibre more than 20 million real state units. Our goal for 2025 is to have all residential customers migrated from our copper network.

Why is fibre deployment so relevant? Fibre enables the development of future-proof, ultrahigh capacity networks capable of managing exponential traffic demand increases: it enables speeds of up to 10 gigabytes-per-second and it has a lifespan of more than 30 years. Thanks to this high capacity, in Spain we have been able to manage the 40% bandwidth-demand increase experienced in the first weeks of confinement. As a matter of fact, this increased capacity has allowed Spain to maintain high-level quality video streaming, despite calls from the European Commission to implement measures to avoid network congestion.

Fibre is not the only solution to provide access to the digital world. To connect people in remote and rural areas other solutions are needed. A great case study is our Internet Para Todos initiative in Peru launched together with Facebook, the Latin American Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The company, a Rural Mobile Infrastructure Operator, aims to get all Peruvians connected to the Internet. In just over a year since its launch, it has already expanded connectivity to over 1.5 million Peruvians in more than 6,000 local communities after having deployed over 670 new 3G and 4G mobile sites.

Also by the author: "A New Digital Deal: Initiating the debate on how to achieve human-centric digitalisation"

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of network resilience and quality. It is now time to define and implement the right policies to ensure all can access the benefits of digitalisation and its foundational pillar, ultrahigh broadband networks. The telecom sector’s capability to invest is constrained by challenging regulation, sometimes based on political decisions rather than sound economics. In many sectors, governments shape the broad market conditions and are conscious not to overreach, while in the telecom sector, governments intervene in the market itself, creating new sub-scale players and preventing exit. We call on policy makers to reflect on this on-going experience as they recalibrate regulations to support sustainable investment in networks and more balanced objectives on network quality and price.

When we look back on this complex situation in the future, we will realise that this was the moment when technology and co-operation, communication infrastructure and the Internet proved to be our great allies in winning this battle through innovation and solidarity.

2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19, but also as the year when we became digital societies for good.

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Digitalisation Digital Inclusion Future of Work

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Enrique Medina Malo

Chief Policy Officer, Telefónica, S.A.

Enrique graduated from Santa Maria del Pilar School, in Madrid (1990). He holds a law degree from Carlos III University of Madrid (1994) and was admitted to the Spanish Government Legal Services in 1997 (Abogado del Estado). He joined Telefónica Legal department in 2006 as Head of Public Law and later Head of Telecommunications and Information Society Legal Affairs, being responsible for Regulation and Competition legal issues. In 2008, he was appointed Chief Legal Officer of Telefónica, S.A., reporting to the Group's General Counsel and in September 2011, the General Counsel of Telefonica Europe, reporting to the regional CEO. He is currently Chief Policy Officer. Until 2006, he served as State Lawyer for the Spanish State Administration, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Industry and Energy and the High Court of Cataluña. From 2002 to 2004, he served as General Director for Legislation (Secretario General Técnico) of the Ministry of Science & Technology. He was Chief Legal Officer of the Spanish Broadcasting Corporation RTVE from 2004-2006.

1 Comment

Go to the profile of David H. Deans
David H. Deans 6 months ago

The internet is the essential infrastructure of the Global Networked Economy. National, regional and local government policymakers must avoid taxing methodologies that result in a burden that's similar to the alcohol and tobacco 'sin tax' approach.

My point: access and use of the internet isn't 'a sin' and should not be taxed excessively. That said, the combined taxes on mobile communication services are often more than 20 percent of the overall subscriber expense. Furthermore, for many people across the globe there is no choice, the mobile internet is their only option.