When connectivity is not enough: the key to meaningful digital inclusion

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(ITU, 2017)

Smart is the adjective of our modern world, a world where applications, solutions, products and even entire industries are making innovative use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve the quality of our lives and the efficiency of our services.

The potential of smart is enormous. In a smart city, for example, everything from transport to urban planning, electricity supply, local government services and infrastructure management can be improved through the use of ICTs. Smart technologies are essential to create sustainable urbanization, protect the environment and manage living spaces. Smart banking is poised to bring the billions of unbanked worldwide into the global economy. Smart transport can reduce congestion and pollution, increase road safety and widen mobility options to an unprecedented degree. Industry 4.0 offers a manufacturing revolution with individually-tailored goods produced at low cost and in high quality. And remote or mobile health options delivered by smart technologies will increase the range, availability and reliability of healthcare solutions for us all.

Smart is disrupting our world for the better – as ITU Telecom World 2017 recognises in its annual debate, networking and exhibition event, focusing this year on “Smart digital transformation.” But a smart society is dependent upon ICT infrastructure and networks like never before. And in a world where some 3.9 billion citizens remain offline, there is a very real danger that smart transformation will improve the lives of those in developed markets to a far greater extent than those in emerging nations. The digital divide will deepen into a smart chasm, leaving the unconnected ever further behind, ever more remote from the multiple socio-economic benefits access to ICTs offers.

It is imperative to work on closing that gap, on increasing the deployment and use of the broadband networks which are so critical to delivering key services to improve quality of life. In today’s world, there’s no disputing the social and economic benefits broadband brings with it. Whether fixed, mobile or hybrid, broadband networks kick-start development, producing a direct, positive and measurable impact on economies. Broadband improves efficiency, communications and the circulation of goods and services, creating new markets, innovations and access to the knowledge economy.

So expanding and extending broadband infrastructure must be the first principle of development, particularly in those emerging economies where smart technologies offer such enormous potential to make a difference. The ICT sector has set itself the ambitious goal of connecting the next 1.5 billion citizens by 2020 – a goal which can only be met by innovative approaches to universal access including new technologies, new business models and new public-private-civic partnerships.

The central challenge remains one of investment in broadband. Outside of heavily-populated urban areas, the market for network deployment is often unpromising or simply unviable. Distances are too great, terrain too dramatic, populations too scattered and average income far too low. Even in the cities, lack of consumer education, low incomes and complex government regulations create major difficulties for private sector investment.

Government is thus the single most important stakeholder in broadband deployment, whether directly through fiscal regulatory or policy measures, or through creative partnerships with the private sector and local communities. A new balance between taxation and fiscal incentives in the ICT sector may well prove key to increasing large-scale investment in infrastructure, weighing the enormous positive impact of ICT against the wider needs of society as a whole. It is easy to draw tax revenue from a sector as stable, structured and generally well-regulated as ICT; but there is a very real danger of increased prices for the consumer and significantly less capex earmarked for next-generation networks.  Governments could look to adopt measures such as revived Universal Service Funds, or new approaches to local and national rights of way, site sharing, licence fees or even the partnering of ICT infrastructure with other buildings or utilities within a more holistic public services ecosystem.

But even once the network is there, it is not enough. Connectivity alone does not drive broadband take-up. Rolling out networks does not automatically mean rolling out opportunity and information. For connectivity to bring the socio-economic benefits it promises, it has to be meaningful. And making it meaningful means driving demand, through affordability, awareness, capacity and relevant content.

We need an explicit focus on creating demand to drive broadband adoption with all the socio-economic benefits it brings – and with an eye to a fairer, more equitable and wider-reaching experience of the smart future. Content is critical, content that is in local languages and relevant to local contexts and communities. This may include compelling services and applications in health, education, banking or entertainment.  Access to improved public services may prove key, the killer piece of content.

Then there’s the need to provide affordable devices, as well as training and capacity-building to enable users to understand not only how to work the technology, but to appreciate its capabilities, get creative, unleash untapped local human potential. But even training and education programmes will prove unsuccessful without a drive to increase awareness, in particular amongst the marginalized groups that are disproportionately unconnected, the rural, low-income, illiterate, elderly and female. And without ensuring sufficient power supplies and bandwidth, access to broadband will not produce the transformative effect of which it is capable.

Connectivity alone is not enough in the fight to increase digital opportunity, access to the information economy and the human advancement that ensues.  Digital inclusion can only be effective and meaningful when there is awareness of the benefits of connectivity, the skills and confidence to exploit it, and affordable, attractive content. The progress being made towards that goal, and the stumbling blocks that are emerging, will be central to the debate at ITU Telecom World 2107 in Busan, Republic of Korea, this September – an event which will balance the perspectives of the unconnected globally with those of a pioneering smart city and global leader in enhanced technology ecosystems. It promises to be fascinating.

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