From the mag: ITU head Houlin Zhao on going beyond 5G – and why tech must be able to lift society

5G may have great transformative power. But it’s meaningless unless it can also be used to improve people’s lives, says International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.
ITU, UN, Tech, Development, Society, Business, Houlin Zhao, CommsMEA

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Image: ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao

A version of this story appears in the June 2019 print issue of CommsMEA.

While 5G technology may still be in the process of being rolled out in the Middle East and Africa, there’s no point in doing so unless operators, suppliers and vendors are using the technology to improve people’s lives – or so says the Secretary-General of the United Nations agency known as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Houlin Zhao said it’s also important to use existing technology to make the world a better place to live in, he said – and a better place for subsequent generations.

Speaking in Dubai at the SAMENA Leaders’ Summit, Zhao said a key for developing “G” technologies is operators, suppliers, vendors, government regulatory authorities and more all “going with the herd” for mutual cooperation and development.

Zhao also said he felt there was a “misconception” that ICT and the telecommunications industry is purely about making a profit. “This is not correct,” he said.

The bigger mission? He said that’s simple – and one of the key things the United Nations itself is all about.

“Our mission is to connect the world, to connect people.”

He added: “ICT can be a very powerful tool [with which to do this].”

With 5G as the theme of this year’s Leaders’ Summit, much of Zhao’s discussion focused on the potential of 5G for improving society, and how to “successfully” roll out 5G services so the greatest number of people can benefit.

“[5G] will create a lot of jobs,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe the technology will lead to mass job losses – or worse, a scenario posited by some science fiction writers and conspiracy theorists and other “survivalist” types in which 5G-powered AI and robots “rise up” to replace humanity. Instead, Zhao said he sees a bright future ahead – one in which more people have access to more advanced technology than ever before, and  a world in which it’s easier for people to communicate with one another.

“There are a lot of opportunities.”

5G technology can also help create a more equal world and improve women’s rights, according to Zhao.

There are a lot of ways that can potentially happen, but one way that can be the case, he argued, is that 5G connections can give women more agency, by making it possible for them to send and receive mobile payments – thus controlling their own money.

And that’s not all. Zhao said 5G can also help women discover new opportunities and network – things that, Zhao added, could be especially helpful in rural areas of the developing world, such as in parts of Africa, and remote regions of nations like Saudi Arabia.

The need for more jobs as 5G is developed and rolled out also means more employment opportunities for women, according to Zhao. Because of this, he said it’s more critical than ever that more women and girls go into ICT and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.

“We need to encourage more girls and women. This is very important.”

A more equal, better-connected world? Zhao said those are just a few of the potential promises of 5G. As for 6G? He said he wasn’t entirely sure what that would bring if and when the technology is developed – but, he said he believes, it will be “even better.”

Zhao was in Dubai for the first time since the ITU’s 20th Plenipotentiary Conference took place in October 2018. The multi-week event brought together more than 2,500 delegates from more than 180 countries, and even heads of government such as the Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

Like the SAMENA Leaders’ Summit, Zhao was the keynote speaker at that event, too. In his speech, he said: “New technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things will change how we live, work and learn in ways that have yet to be imagined. And the ITU is in the front seat. The challenge before us today is to ensure that these technologies and ICTs in general continue to be a source for good for everyone across the world.”

He added: “I’m very confident ICT will be a tool for development and peace.”

Zhao has been Secretary-General of the ITU since 2015. He was elected by ITU members to another term this past year – meaning he will now serve until at least 2023.

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