Governments and companies from around the world made more than 360 pledges worth $18.55 billion to connect the digitally unconnected global population at an event held by UN agency the International Telecommunication Union in Rwanda.
The commitments will directly benefit billions of people, especially in developing countries where connectivity is lagging, the ITU said in a statement on Thursday.
The funding, services, technical support and other assistance will “improve people's access to — and readiness for — digital technologies. It will also foster digital ecosystems and incentivise investment in digital transformation”, it added.
ITU's Partner2Connect digital development event aimed to align global connectivity strategies with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The event will prove to be a “tipping point" in supporting global connectivity, said the ITU’s secretary general Houlin Zhao.
“The pledges and commitments made in Kigali [Rwanda's capital] and in the months leading to this roundtable send a powerful message that together we can ramp up investments in ICT [Information and Communications Technology] development to leave no one offline," Mr Zhao said.
ITU, which is the UN’s specialised agency for ICT, has 193 member states and a membership of more than 900 companies, universities and international and regional organisations.
The coronavirus pandemic forced countries to impose widespread movement restrictions, prompting offices and schools to transition to remote working and online learning. This exposed the steep digital divide between countries, as those with poor connectivity lagged behind developed ones.
In developed countries, the internet penetration rate stands at 87 per cent, compared with 47 per cent in developing countries and 19 per cent in the least developed countries, according to a previous report by the ITU.
Nearly 2.9 billion people, or more than one-third of the world's population, have never connected to the internet, as per the agency's latest estimates.
The pledges announced at the roundtable were not only financial. They also included new commitments, policies and advocacy plans to bridge the digital divide, creating opportunities for new partnerships and alliances for global connectivity, the ITU said.
During the event, the ITU's host country Switzerland pledged that Geneva would host the headquarters of Giga, a joint ITU-Unicef initiative to connect every school in the world to the internet by 2030.
“After months of collective work developing the Partner2Connect action framework and the pledging platform, together with ITU member states, civil society groups, philanthropic organisations, private and youth-led organisations, we are now setting a major milestone by gathering under one umbrella an unprecedented number of commitments to advance universal and meaningful connectivity," said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU's telecommunication development bureau.