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COVID Showed Need for Ubiquitous Connectivity: ITU's Bogdan-Martin

The COVID-19 pandemic drove home the importance of being able to connect to the internet, said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, head of the ITU Telecom Development Bureau, and candidate for secretary-general of the organization, during a virtual Telecommunications Industry Association conference Wednesday. The bureau recently concluded its international conference, held every four years, this year in Kigali, Rwanda. Other speakers stressed the importance of making connections more secure and the challenges industry continues to face.

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ITU’s stated mission is to connect the world,” Bogdan-Martin said: “It has taken on a new dimension and impetus over the past two years as we witnessed the catastrophic repercussions faced by individuals and communities lacking access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband that you and I take for granted.”

Many of those who weren’t connected “lost their jobs and income overnight” and an estimated 1.5 billion children were left unable to attend school without the devices and high-speed connections they needed to attend online classes, Bogdan-Martin said. Millions of small businesses failed and many couldn’t get medical attention they needed through telemedicine, she said. “Social isolation and hardship spawned a mental health crisis that the world will be living with for many years to come,” she said.

ITU estimates 2.9 billion people across the world have no connection to the internet, Bogdan-Martin said. A recent report said among the almost 5 billion counted as connected “many hundreds of millions struggle with infrequent access to poor quality, expensive connectivity that effectively prevents them from using that connectivity to improve their own lives,” she said. “Our urgent challenge as a global community is to bridge that gaping connectivity challenge,” she said.

Bogdan-Martin said the ITU is also focused on the environment and reducing the more than 53 million tons of e-waste generated each year. Only 17% of that waste is currently collected and recycled, and only 40% of nations have e-waste policies or regulations, she said. “We need to work more closely to harmonize measurement methodologies, to boost the capacity of national statistics offices to measure e-waste levels, to consider setting targets for e-waste collection and recycling and support countries to regulate e-waste,” she said.

Most of the event focused on security. The transparency of everything that goes into a network and developing a software bill of materials (SBOM) is critical, said Allan Friedman, U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency senior adviser and strategist. “SBOM is coming … for a range of sectors, including the communications sector,” he said: “We have to expect that everyone should be moving in this direction. There’s no reason why organizations can’t ask for SBOMs, can’t produce SBOMs today.”

The SBOM isn't a “silver bullet” for more secure networks, Friedman said. It’s similar to the list of ingredients on prepackaged food, he said. “It’s a foundational data layer upon which we can build a lot of great tools to enable our supply chains to function much better,” he said. “At its core, it really is knowing what you have,” he said. “Transparency is hard … and it’s complex,” he said.

The medical device community showed what's possible, Friedman said. “For the last few years, medical devices manufacturers have been partnering with some of the best hospitals in America to show that this kind of data can be captured and generated and shared, and then used to help secure the use cases,” he said. Companies won’t change voluntarily, which is why President Joe Biden signed executive order 14028 last year (see 2204080039) requiring an SBOM for all software the federal government buys, he said. “As many of you know, the U.S. government buys a lot of software,” he said.

Software is playing a much bigger role in communications networks now than just five years ago, said Sanjay Macwan, Vonage chief information and security officer. “It’s a software-defined network architecture” and “more open-source software is playing a big role,” he said.

Industry needs to develop a “culture” where engineers in the field take an “end-to-end” view of the network, said Sankaran Ramanathan, Verizon executive director-network support systems. “A lot of these components are kind of overlapping, but at the same time getting automated,” he said. Field engineers are playing more of the role of a system integrator, he said: “You have multiple vendors playing a role. You have software being deployed in the core as well as [at] the edge. You have elements of the … legacy network that still exist.”