In 2012, according to statistics published by the ITU, 250 million additional people connected to the Internet for the first time.
By the end of 2013, it was estimated that 40% of world was now online.
This sounds like a lot, but it still leaves 1.1 billion households – or 4.4 billion people – who are not connected to the web.
It is against this backdrop that we have seen a raft of initiatives to bridge this gap. This includes Google’s “Project Loon” – which uses high-altitude balloons to help fill coverage gaps by in rural and remote areas – as well as Internet.org; a mobile focused initiative led by Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung.
Of course many of these communities have needs which cannot simply be solved by giving them Internet access. But this type of connectivity can unlock multiple benefits.
From giving communities a voice, through to improving access to information, as well as creating opportunities for women and rural populations to generate income via e-commerce, I’ve seen first-hand how reducing digital divides can potentially reduce not just social but socio-economic divides too.
The Economic Case
Research in 2010 by Ericsson and Arthur D. Little concluded that for every 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration GDP increases by 1 per cent, whilst a 2011 follow-up study determined that doubling broadband speed increased a country’s GDP by 0.3 per cent.
Meanwhile new analysis related to the “trickle down” effect of increased broadband speeds on household income suggests that an upgrade from 4 to 8 Mbps increases income by $120 per month in OECD countries. Even a smaller increase from 0.5-4 Mbps is believed to give a $46 per month increase in income in Brazil, India and China.
Untapped economic benefits can also be found in more advanced Internet economies. A 2009 study from PwC, for example, argued the economic benefit of getting everyone in the UK online was in excess of £22 billion; with the authors stating that: “People with good ICT skills earn between 3% and 10% more than people without such skills.” And that: “Households offline are missing out on savings of £560 per year from shopping and paying bills online.”
The report also suggested that the UK Government could save a minimum of £900m a year if all digitally excluded adults went online to make just one electronic contact per month. Such potential savings remain very handy at a time of continued austerity.
Given these figures it is not surprising that most countries have put in place plans to stimulate investment in broadband networks, as well as get as many people online as possible.
“The debate is not about that endgame. It is about how to get there.” Blair Levin, The Aspen Institute
For many of those not currently online, mobile will be their first route to connecting to the web, and this is where many parties are understandably focusing their attention.
According to the Broadband Commission, “by 2016, over 80% of broadband is expected to be mobile and many people’s first and only access to the Internet will be via a mobile device.”
Globally mobile broadband already surpasses fixed line broadband at a ratio of almost 3:1.
The Future is Mobile
As the report notes: “mobile broadband is delivering far-reaching social and economic benefits in the form of healthcare, education, retail, payments, banking, public services and improved productivity.”
Examples include the Kenyan originated mobile banking tool, M-Pesa, mobile money services provided by Ooredoo, QNB and others, as well as education services such as BBC Janala which delivers English lessons via mobile phones in Bangladesh.
What may be more surprising – and less well known – is the role that the authors feel can support wider development issues such as poverty reduction and food security, or efforts to tackle gender and youth issues, as well as the promotion of good governance.
Many of these factors are closely interlinked; and achieving the full socio-economic benefits which broadband can unlock will be challenging.
To do this will require the continued deployment of a multi-stakeholder approach which tackles the full digital journey; from access to technology through to the promotion of digital skills which encourage information literacy and the ability to create – as well as consume – content.
I believe that no single group can do this alone. Public-private partnerships, co-ordination of the type recently seen by mobile operators in the Middle East, alongside the continued efforts of civil society organisations, will all play a role in making this happen.
We’ve come a long way towards creating an inclusive connected world, but there remains a long way to go. I look forward to continuing to play a small part in helping to make that analogue aspiration a digital reality.
This is my contribution to the #MyIndustry series. I am writing in a personal capacity, so any views / opinions featured in this article are mine and not necessarily those of my employer.