Ushering in the new digital era
We are living a new reality. The ways we socialize, exercise, work, travel, consume and trade have been updated, like new software on our devices. The majority of our interactions and transactions have moved to digital platforms. We are now more in harmony with the technologies we have created, blurring the line between virtual and physical. As the world evolves toward this new reality, the facilitation, regulation and security of digital services is increasingly important.
Overcoming the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will require international coordination on an unprecedented scale. As president of the G20, Saudi Arabia has a crucial role in overseeing cooperation between member countries and the rest of the world in finding global solutions. An extraordinary meeting of G20 digital economy ministers on April 30 chaired by Abdullah Al-Swaha, Saudi minister of communication and IT, discussed how to deploy digital communication technologies in the fight against COVID-19. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, minister of health, joined to discuss the role of digital technologies in health care. It was agreed that digital capacities should be expanded, in particular access to affordable, secure broadband, to underserviced areas and vulnerable people. In addition, all available digital capacities should support health care systems and local small businesses, and protect global supply chains.
The response of Saudi Arabia’s leadership to the coronavirus was swift and decisive, and probably saved thousands of lives. As policy makers and regulators, it is CITC’s job to ensure that data and digital services are deployed in a transparent, secure, and ethical manner across all platforms. Saudi Arabia ranks second in the G20 for spectrum liberalization and CITC has worked closely with network operators to boost services as data consumption surges.
Before the global lockdown, the average person in Saudi Arabia consumed 600MB of data per day, twice the world average. This has grown to over 920MB per day, which shows how critical it is to maintain healthy and secure digital communications. We recently increased our mobile data frequencies by 50 percent to meet the demand.
Looking forward, Saudi Arabia is well prepared for a more digitized economy.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Tamimi
CITC has worked with other government entities to digitize vital sectors including health and education. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, we gave free access to e-health so it does not consume data from the user’s internet plan whether via the app or website. This allows the ministry to detect and track COVID-19 cases and provide treatment. In education, the government enabled free access to e-learning applications and waived data costs for university students using educational platforms. The volume of services provided by government agencies since the start of the lockdown increased by 70 percent from the same period last year.
COVID-19 has also underscored the need for an efficient delivery infrastructure. CITC has implemented new policies to provide the best services while safeguarding people’s rights. During curfew, all registered delivery companies were permitted to work around the clock. Ten new delivery apps were registered, bringing the total to 26, and new regulations set to ensure the safety of providers and users. Delivery drivers must be equipped with personal protective equipment and pass daily health checks. Social distancing and e-payment are mandatory.
Looking forward, Saudi Arabia is well prepared for a more digitized economy. In the past three years the government and private sector have invested over $15 billion in ICT infrastructure. Internet services now cover 99 percent of the country and 3 million homes have fiber broadband. Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to offer 5G, and has installed 6,800 5G and 28,000 4G network towers serving 30 percent and 91 percent of the population respectively. We rank 12th globally and 5th in the G20 for mobile internet speed, which leaves us well positioned for the new digital era.
Adapting to this new reality will allow us to live in a safer, healthier, better informed and efficient world. It is the duty of regulators such as CITC to ensure the quality and security of the digital services we find ourselves increasingly reliant on. We will continue working with other local and international regulators, and the private sector, to guarantee the best user experience and to unlock the huge potential of the new digital economy.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Tamimi is governor of the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC)