Policy responses to COVID-19, Repurposing National Highways for Good

Policy responses to COVID-19, Repurposing National Highways for Good

Date: 
Friday, September 25, 2020
Type: 
Public information and advocacy materials
Abstract

COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world to its core. Asia-Pacific leaders are simultaneously struggling to save lives and livelihoods. Working from home, online pedagogy and telemedicine are the new normal. This has exposed the region’s urban-rural digital fault line and fragility of its digital networks.

Optical fiber cable (OFC) is the critical element in universal access to broadband. But its deployment is prohibitive due to massive costs (80%) attributed to civil works and payments for rights-of-way. Such investment also takes a much longer time (15 years) to recover. It has led mobile operators to plug their 4G mobile towers with OFC in the urban areas for faster recovery of investments. As a result, the urban-rural gap of broadband has grown, as evidenced during the ongoing pandemic.

A reduction of this urban-rural broadband gap is imperative, as education, business and medical care are increasingly going online. But Asia-Pacific governments are not in a position to undertake the massive budgetary commitment of civil construction for the ubiquitous OFC deployment.

Concurrent with the construction of national roads and highways, the laying of duct for OFC under “Dig Once” policy offloads this burden. It offers significant time and cost savings from the installation of ducts during the road construction. This infrastructure gets shared by the mobile network operators (MNOs) and Internet service providers (ISPs), which greatly reduces the costs of delivering meaningful broadband to rural citizens. It has shown promising results in Africa, Asia and in some states in the United States of America.

Asia-Pacific leaders can take the “Dig Once” policy to a higher sphere by incorporating the OFC segment for intelligent transport systems (ITS). Road authorities can deploy OFC under “Dig Once” policy much ahead of installing the ITS and start earning revenue from leasing the surplus capacity to the MNOs and ISPs. Examples of such repurposing of OFC prevail in the railway and power sectors.

Roads and highways will be merely an addition to the existing portfolio of such repurposed national infrastructure. It throws a lifeline for universal access to broadband as well as guarantees network readiness for accelerated deployment of ITS. ITS enhance road safety, which saves many hundred thousand lives from road accidents as well.

Therefore, leapfrogging to economic progress through universal digitization with simultaneous improvement of road safety are embedded in the OFC network of ITS under the “Dig Once” policy. All this groundbreaking policy formulation requires inclusive engagements among the Asia-Pacific governments and multiple development partners. The region’s road transport sector is poised to take the ICT sector farther than where the railway and power sectors have been taken. The result will be unprecedented.

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