More than half of the world population now have access to the Internet, owing to increased investment in the Information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and reduced prices of digital technologies. With 51.2 percent or 3.9 billion internet users, our world has achieved an important milestone for connecting people and enabling them to access countless services at just the click of a button, anytime, anywhere.
But are these figures enough to build an inclusive digital society? Definitely, NOT! To ensure that no one is left behind in the hyper-connected world and for the better implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is extremely important to provide affordable internet access to the remaining half of the population that is not yet online. The SDG 9.c of the United Nations calls for significantly increasing access to ICT and providing universal and affordable internet access in the least developed countries by 2020.
Why affordable internet matters?
The ambitious targets set by the United Nations are not confined to a particular geographical region or a specific section of the society, they are for the betterment and development of all the resources available on the planet, be it human, animals or the environment. From eliminating extreme poverty to gender equality, sustainable cities to climate action and from quality education to conserving marine resources, all the 17 goals and its 169 targets implicitly rely on the internet and digital technologies for their success. Most importantly, the SDG 17 calls for fully operationalizing the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries, in particular information and communications technology. It recognizes the critical role of technology to share ideas and foster innovation.
Internet, according to me is the most important invention of all times that has completely transformed the way we connect to the world, do businesses or access services. Online platforms have provided new modes of global connectivity for a common man and a new platform for various businesses and entrepreneurs to endorse their products globally, regardless of the location. The Internet can catalyze the process of developing a more inclusive global information society and promote convergence of living standards for all citizens if accessible to every section of the society.
As Andrew Brown said, "the Internet is so big, so powerful and pointless that for some people it is a complete substitute for life". Yes, indeed it is a vast and endless ocean of valuable resources that are meant to transform our lives.
More connected more empowered
Almost every country in the world is grappling with a widening digital divide. Unequal access to internet hinders economic growth and the pathway to social inclusion. The Internet can serve as a powerful tool for the poor and disadvantaged groups by helping them in their daily struggles like poor health, basic education and much more. Let's take a few examples to understand how the internet can empower the society, in particular, the disadvantaged population.
Education, as we all know, plays a major role in the socio-economic development of a nation. The Internet coupled with digital technologies has virtually revolutionized the effective teaching and learning process. It has also given rise to the development of smart/e-classrooms, virtual labs, digital libraries, thus bringing a big change in the field of education. While traditional learning is restricted to a location and needs a well-planned infrastructure, e-learning is accessible anytime, anywhere, all you need is an internet connection and few digital tools. Virtual classrooms, distance, and e-learning programs have potential and seemingly obvious solutions to address the learning crisis in poor regions like sub-Saharan Africa which has the highest rates of education exclusion in the world.
Coming to the healthcare sector, the situation is worse as more than half of the world's population lacks access to basic healthcare services, owing to the high expenses and poor infrastructure. So how will the world attain universal health coverage, a commitment under the SDGs, by 2030? The answer lies in the power of the internet. To identify the vulnerable population and to deliver faster and customized healthcare, decision-makers can use reliable and real-time data coming from the world wide web. It's not that technology alone will change the picture, but it can empower doctors, community health workers and citizens by remote delivery of health services, consumer awareness, enabling communication between patients and health professionals and providing them with new tools and resources.
To achieve inclusive growth, access to financial services is an increasingly important element today. It is a basic step towards addressing pressing global issues like poverty, migration, and inequality. As per the latest estimates, globally there are 1.7 billion unbanked adults i.e. they do not have a bank account at any financial institution and subsequently, lack access to financial products and services. Unequal access or no access to financial services also close the door for quality education, healthcare, and other economic opportunities. A simple mobile phone can make access to financial services much easier but when coupled with the internet, it expands the range of possibilities.
The widespread adoption of the internet and mobile banking has significantly brought down the proportion of people lacking access to financial services. Sub-Saharan Africa and India are the perfect examples, consumers in these regions are using mobile banking services at a pace never seen before.
While traditional banking services are expensive and need massive infrastructure investment to serve their customers, online banking platforms utilize minimum resources to provide maximum services. They have opened up doors for financially excluded and underserved population by lowering costs and risks while extending services into hard-to-reach regions, where traditional financial institutions and services can't reach.
What will it take to ensure affordable access?
One part of the world is ready to brace for 5G, while the other part still lacks an affordable internet connection, deepening the digital divide and limiting the socio-economic development. Affordability, accessibility and digital skills are the three key pillars to combat digital exclusion. Access to affordable internet is not a privilege but it's an essential tool that every individual need to survive and thrive in the digital age. To overcome the affordability barrier for the offline population, particularly for low-income households, a well-planned ICT infrastructure coupled with policy and regulatory reform is the critical first step. For this, the government, civil society, and other stakeholders should collaborate at regional, national and international levels.
I believe that private players can significantly contribute to efforts to bridge the global digital divide not only through investments but also by supporting the government in the development of national broadband plans and infrastructure. For example, India jumped to the eighth spot on Affordability Drivers Index (ADI), from 17th position in 2017, owing to private sector investments, effective use of the Universal Service & Access Funds (USAFs) and continued support of regulators to the competitive mobile market. In India, private players like Reliance Jio have helped to improve internet affordability by providing cheap data plans and mobile handsets.
Outdated technologies and poor spectrum management are also the key contributors to unaffordable internet around the globe. To drive down industry costs and expand internet access, countries need to replace traditional spectrum management approaches with a smart and effective one.
Despite affordable internet, people are often digitally excluded because they lack basic digital skills to use it, especially the lower-income groups, older and rural population. So once affordability and accessibility are achieved, the next step is to ensure that the consumers have the right skills to confidently go online and reap maximum benefits from the online services. Policy interventions and public-private partnership will help achieve the mission of inclusive and equitable digital skills development.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)