Reaching across the digital divide

In mature and emerging markets, the digital divide remains an obstacle to education, economic growth, and the human right to connectivity.

Written by Harry Menear

The benefits of the digital age range from economic opportunities - something that’s especially true in the era of COVID-19 and mass remote or hybrid work - to the convenience of online shopping. High levels of digital connectivity are strongly linked to higher gross domestic product (GDP), with a study by the World Bank finding that as little as a 1% increase in fixed broadband penetration yields an increase of 0.08 percent in GDP. 

“Broadband connectivity plays a key role as an enabler of economic growth and prosperity across communities” notes Emmanuel Vella, VP, EMEA Broadband Networks at CommScope, adding that this has become even more apparent as “the lines between ‘home’ and ‘office’ become increasingly blurred due to the rise of hybrid working.” 

Hamish White, CEO of Mobilise, stresses that, because broadband is an increasingly vital economic enabler, “Being digitally connected is as important in today’s society as access to any other utility,” with Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO, SiFi Networks explaining that “Access to broadband is necessary to exercise other fundamental human rights” - among which he notes are the right to freedom of speech, the right to education, and what the United States Declaration of Independence termed “the pursuit of happiness,” intended as the right to pursue social mobility. 

The benefits of the digital age are so ingrained in the ways in which we work, play, and express ourselves that it’s hard to imagine the world without them. However, while telecom operators and other companies in the communications space focus on new technologies like 5G, industrial IoT, and the birth of smart cities, a shockingly high proportion of people (in both mature and emerging markets) languish on the other side of the digital divide. 

The Other Side of the Digital Divide 


Like his contemporaries, John Morrison, SVP of International Markets at Extreme Networks, acknowledges that “Broadband now underpins much of our daily activities and is integral to the future of economic growth.” Morrison adds, however, that “a marked connectivity gap in the reliability and speed of broadband still exists between well-connected urban areas and more remote, rural ones.” 

Information released this year by DataReportal found that a staggering 40% of people worldwide do not have access to the internet. The majority of the people stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide are located in regions with more emerging markets (traditionally those with a history of being colonised rather than being colonisers - a fact I assume will shock exactly no one), like the Middle East and North Africa. 

“There are 290 million people in MENA that are not connected to the Internet, and an additional 60 million are not covered by current networks,” says White, who notes that exceptions to this general trend - like the fact that in the UAE 99.6% of the nation has access to network coverage while in South Sudan this figure is just 23.79% - only go to show the direct correlation between connectivity and economic prosperity. 

However, looking at the digital divide on a purely national scale hides the large number of people in so-called “developed markets” who are left underserved or disconnected along more individual lines that tend to be associated with both location and class (although those two vectors are also somewhat interlinked). 

“About 21 million Americans - nearly three in ten citizens - don’t have sufficient access to broadband,” Bawtree-Jobson explains. Unequal digital connectivity in the richest country on earth is “part of the wider problem of redlining, a discriminatory practice that emerged in the 1930s aimed at denying access to services for low-income neighbourhoods or neighbourhoods with a high proportion of non-white residents.” 

The accessibility issues associated with discriminatory infrastructure that have affected America’s road, rail, and electricity infrastructure for close to a century, now “affect relatively new sectors such as telecommunications and broadband access.” 

Bawtree-Jobson adds that the situation in the US is worsened by the country’s broadband industry model, in which ISPs both own and operate the country’s network infrastructure. “Unlike in most European countries, US citizens who live outside major urban areas can normally rely on only one ISP, the one that owns and operates the network infrastructure in their area,” he explains. Default monopolies in remote, economically deprived, or non-white areas - he adds - allow corporations to “dictate prices and deprive consumers of choice.” 

The lower ROI companies receive from less densely populated or lower income areas leads ISPs - with no motivation beyond revenue generation - to disinvest in those areas, stranding more people on the wrong side of a widening connectivity gap, while urban and affluent areas receive high-band 5G and full fibre infrastructure. 

In the UK, the divide is more starkly drawn between rural and urban populations, although Kevin Hasley, CEO of independent benchmarking firm RootMetrics, notes that similar logic applies. “Mobile operators typically deploy and optimise their networks first and foremost in major cities, where the most people live, before extending into the suburbs and more rural areas,” he says, explaining that the key factor behind this process “essentially comes down to economics” for operators.

“Operators often prioritise network improvements or new technology rollouts - like 5G - in areas where the average revenue per user (ARPU) is high - areas where people spend the most on their phone bill,” Halsey continues. “In effect, that means that people who already have good performance are the first to see upgrades. People in lower ARPU areas, meanwhile, who likely see worse performance in the first place, are also less likely to see their performance improve. It’s a bit of a ‘the rich get richer’ scenario that regulatory agencies and operators need to address before we can hope to narrow the divide.”  

Closing the Digital Divide 


Just like any problem of daunting scope, addressing the issues of the digital divide won’t be solved one way. There is no silver bullet, but rather a host of promising steps that, if taken together, could result in bringing millions into the digital age. 

Ian Duggan, CEO of Indigo Telecom, stresses that “Fibre is not the only way to bridge the digital divide and connect homes and businesses in rural parts of the world. Wireless and 5G technologies also play a key part.” By eliminating the view that fibre and wireless connectivity need to exist in a state of competition, operators can build towards a market in which “where one wins over the other as the primary source of access should always depend on the business case and other network backhaul considerations.”

Connectivity provided by constellations of low earth orbit satellites could also extend network coverage in places where terrestrial infrastructure is too expensive or difficult to install. “LEO satellites offer backhaul connectivity on a global scale,” White explains. “Instead of connecting each individual small village with microwave or fibre, a LEO satellite network allows blanket global coverage for backhaul purposes.” He adds that other methods, like more affordable electronic devices, and digital onboarding of customers that don’t have physical access to retail locations could both increase connectivity. 

Morrison believes that, in the UK at least, bridging the digital divide will be reliant on looking outside the country’s market leaders. “Only by relying on AltNets to unlock a full-fibre future will the UK see instant results,” he says. “Homes and workplaces across the UK will gain access to faster, and more reliable broadband - enabling UK citizens in rural areas to work productively, experience the likes of modern-day gaming and remain connected to others wherever they are located.”

However, as Hasley said earlier, without regulation from governing bodies that recognises (fast) internet connectivity as a fundamental and necessary right in the digital age, the digital divide remains an issue of economics. In much the same way that finding a profitable solution to the climate crisis is resulting in inaction, lip-service, and little meaningful change, without the acknowledgment that there’s more at stake than a bottom line, those stranded on the other side of the digital divide aren’t crossing the gulf any time soon.



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