Access to technology and ubiquitous, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury but a critical necessity. For so many around the world, life without the connectivity that powers today’s digital tools and applications is simply unimaginable.
Yet, for significant portions of the world’s population, reliable connectivity is either extremely limited or virtually nonexistent. In fact, only 66 percent of the world’s population has internet access. Scattered across Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, 2.9 billion people remain unconnected, with the majority concentrated in 20 countries. But the problem of digital equity is not limited to the developing world; in the U.S., 24 million people are without access to broadband internet.
As a result, a “digital divide” has emerged where those without access to connectivity are simply unable to participate in today’s globally interconnected and digitized world. Communities without connectivity are falling significantly behind in the areas of education, literacy, healthcare, and the ability to generate self-sustaining income. The increased reliance on high-speed internet in a virtualized and distributed world during and since the Covid pandemic has only heightened the disparities between those who have connectivity and those who do not.
Governments of countries in which the disparities are most prevalent are working to drive technology equity through various policies, programs and funding, and are investing in infrastructure, education, and training. Governments alone, however, cannot solve the problem. The world’s communications service providers, and the broader ecosystem of partners with whom they work, have a significant role to play in helping to create a more connected society.
To satisfy the commercial business case, it stands to reason that CSPs focus their network development efforts and infrastructure investments in high-density areas where potential paying subscribers are located. While this makes sense from a commercial perspective, it means those in less populated, remote locations are relegated to having either poor or outdated connectivity, or none at all. While regulations differ from country to country, governments and regulatory bodies are increasingly encouraging CSPs to expand their networks and initiate infrastructure projects to build better networks in underdeveloped areas.
There are several ways that CSPs can extend into underserved areas. From a technology perspective, they can use low-earth orbit satellite services, or other, more cost-effective options, like 4G and 5G, as well as traditional fixed and fibre networks. Some are also deploying RAN sharing and ORAN infrastructure to lower the cost of mobile network deployment.
From a business model perspective, some CSPs are adopting mobile virtual network operator/enablement (MVNO/E) approaches to deliver discounted, subsidized, embedded, or free internet services to those who are disadvantaged or displaced. Other CSPs have introduced innovative commercial models that use new digital sub-brands to go beyond traditional pay-as-you-go services. These models may include free and inclusive access to specific internet services and applications, sponsored devices, and shared data plans. By partnering with educational institutions, sponsors, advertisers, and community businesses, CSPs can maximize the impact of these programs.
Several CSPs have been more proactive in their efforts to close the digital divide. Examples include AT&T and Comcast pledging a combined $3 billion and initiating a program to distribute laptops and teach digital skills in regions where technology is lacking. In Kenya, 96 percent of households – including those in the most rural locations – now have a mobile bank account and can make financial transactions online thanks to M-Pesa, a mobile banking service created by Safaricom that has since been deployed across other areas of the African continent. Another example is Brussels-based BICS, a communications platform company, which has joined forces with Lynk Global’s satellite network to expand availability of mobile coverage to remote areas of the world.
Among the nonprofits that have emerged to fight and reverse digital inequity, Unconnected.org is working to connect underserved communities by rallying donors and private organizations. The organization is focused on providing students, refugees, and women with access to the technology and connectivity that can lead to greater employment opportunities and enhanced access to education, healthcare, and financial services.
As a member of the global telecommunications ecosystem, Aria is proud to participate in the effort to bridge the gap. Through our partnership with and support of Unconnected.org, we are donating laptops and other devices to give more people access to technology and the ability to participate in the global digital transformation.