Closing the digital divide remains a major mission for the ITU

digital divide ITU
Chaesub Lee, Director of ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB)

In the fast-rising digital world. the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is more relevant than ever as it not only provides the telecoms infrastructure standards that support the rise of digital, but also identifies and solves for the digital divide to enable digital inclusion at all levels of society.

In an exclusive wide-ranging interview with Disruptive.Asia managing editor Tony Poulos, Chaesub Lee, Director of ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB), said that while there are many ICT standards bodies out there, the ITU has been around longer than any of them, and is still the linchpin for developing the telecoms infrastructure standards that support the rise of digital services.

However, he adds, the ITU’s membership has evolved to include members with the core digital expertise to take the union’s mandate beyond straight network connectivity standards – even to the point of developing use cases for AI via its AI For Good program.

“There is a lot of talk about AI in emerging technical areas, but we want to find a practical approach,” Lee says. “We bring someone having problems they need to solve, and we bring someone who wishes to provide the solution, and then we have them meet to facilitate how to utilize AI and ML to help humankind.”

As a UN agency, the ITU also seeks to enable digital inclusion around the world, as both the rise in digital and the rise of COVID-19 have shown that the digital divide is not simply a question of developed vs developing countries.

“COVID has revealed serious gaps – like, gender gaps between men and women, and with COVID in particular we found generation gaps,” Lee says. “So all these really need more engagement from the ICT sector.”

While the ITU has always strived to be apolitical in its operations, current geopolitical tensions between the US and China inevitably raise questions about the extent to which Chinese technology companies are dominating the standards process.

Lee patiently explains that’s not how the ITU works – anyone can introduce an idea, and anyone can oppose it, and any resulting standard is a global standard produced by consensus.

“So it’s difficult to say this is a Chinese standard,” Lee says. “If the issue is that China is becoming one of major contributors, that doesn’t mean it’s happening without any discussions or any proper procedures, or that the Chinese are dominating the standards process. That’s not going to happen.”

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