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Mobile industry rises to COVID-19 challenges

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The mobile industry has risen to the challenges presented by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in many ways.

This was the word from Alex Sinclair, CTO at the GSM Association (GSMA), speaking at the 2020 Huawei Better World Summit yesterday, noting the world has never relied more on the industry as it has during the current pandemic.

Chinese technology giant Huawei is hosting the annual three-day event online as COVID-19 continues to impact the lives of millions across the globe.

COVID-19 infections have surpassed 16 million worldwide, with the death toll at 656 922 and 10.2 million recoveries, at the time of publication. In SA, the numbers have risen substantially, with confirmed cases at 452 529, the national death toll at 7 067 and 274 925 people having recovered, as of this morning.

Sinclair said the mobile operators helped to sustain connectivity, provided vital services, innovations in healthcare, enabled a digital economy and society, as well as connected the unconnected during this global health crisis.

He noted that instead of grinding to a halt during the COVID-19 lockdowns, many sectors could and did continue with a large part of their workforce working from home.

Now more than ever, connectivity is key, he stated. “The mobile industry has been a key part of the connectivity story…connecting 67% of the global population and connecting even more people to broadband Internet than landline connections.

“The pandemic has proven that digital infrastructure must be resilient and able to withstand unexpected stresses, as indeed it has been throughout the crisis.”

Amid the global health crisis, operators stepped up their health initiatives, added the GSMA CTO.

“Many are working with national authorities to leverage their big data and artificial intelligence capabilities to monitor movement during lockdown and limit the spread of the disease, helping inform government decisions.

“In Africa, for example, MTN, Vodacom, Airtel Africa and Orange backed an Africa-focused United Nations digital health platform designed to transmit information related to outbreaks and virus hotspots between authorities and more than 600 million mobile users.

“The platform enabled two-way communication between citizens and health authorities, and has the potential to reach 80% of Africa’s mobile users at no cost to the individual.

“In addition to detecting outbreak hotspots, the platform provides advice and support to those affected.”

On the flip side, however, the crisis highlighted other disparities in society and new forms of digital exclusion, Sinclair indicated.

Despite the impressive growth over the last decade, around 51% of the world’s population is still not even online, he stated.

“Those without Internet or even mobile access have suffered disproportionately during the crisis without basic access to healthcare and education services. Even in the most developed markets some children lack the basic tools to take part in the online education provided.

“To maximise our impact over the next decade, we need to bring the other half of the world online too. The connectivity gap is closing − almost one billion additional people were covered by mobile broadband over the past five years.

“The opportunity is in closing the usage gap, which is caused by lack of affordability of devices and services, low levels of literacy and digital skills, lack of relevant local content, as well as safety and security concerns.”

Sinclair highlighted that COVID-19 has shaken the world, causing everyone to reflect on the values and responsibilities in an interconnected global society.

“Positive change is needed on many fronts, and this requires shared intent and coordinated effort from government, regulators, industry, international organisations and civil society. The mobile sector, for its part, is committed to making a fairer, greener world supported by a thriving and resilient digital economy,” he concluded.

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