The U.S. has been classified as the wealthiest country in the world through several metrics, but despite its wealth, in 2021, 19 million people still lack access to fixed broadband services and 100 million people do not subscribe to broadband services.
In March 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden, announced an 8 year USD 100 million plan to ensure every person in the U.S. has broadband access as a part of his USD 2 trillion infrastructure plan. Guided by the ideas of boosting competition, the plan lays out ways to build publicly owned networks and reduce prices of the Internet. The President´s goal is to provide affordable access to high-speed Internet so that citizens can benefit from the digital economy, e-learning, and health care, amongst others.
Biden’s actions show that access to fixed, broadband Internet requires deliberate and targeted action for any country to accomplish, including the wealthiest in the world. It also demonstrates the critical necessity broadband Internet access is for people to learn, receive healthcare, and work remotely.
If universal broadband access is a priority for all Americans, shouldn’t access to the Internet also be a priority for all other countries in the world?
The State of Global Connectivity
By the end of 2019, only 26 percent of Sub Saharan Africa had access to the Internet. In Latin America, disparities across urban and rural settings are immense, where 72 percent of the urban population has access and only 32 percent – about 244 million people – have no access at all. And across all of Asia, where the disparities are stark between extremely connected countries and those without any connectivity, there are over two billion people with no access to the Internet.
Low connectivity contributes to the widening digital divide – the gulf between those who have access to digital products and services and those who do not – between urban and rural communities, indigenous and non-indigenous populations, young and old, male and female, and persons with or without disabilities.
The digital divide impacts economies, social welfare, health, and political disparities, and most importantly it widens the gap between poor and rich populations of the world. As COVID-19 exemplified, the world must reimagine how digital solutions and technology enable our lives, nevertheless, equitable access must be deliberately advanced without running the risk of further exacerbating disparities.
The Need for Digital Ecosystems
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its Digital Strategy last year, focussing largely on “enabling open, secure, and inclusive digital ecosystems that contribute to measurable development and humanitarian-assistance outcomes and increase self-reliance in partner countries.” That is, the strategy focuses on how to “guarantee that digital technology benefits and protects all citizens” by helping market forces create and strengthen digital ecosystems.
The strategy is a launching point for the U.S. to build upon Biden’s commitments and begin mobilising resources for global digital transformation, recognising the need for coordinated, concerted and deliberate interventions to ensure inclusivity, security, and transparency, and closing the digital divide.
There is a need for actions that pursue digital inclusion around the world and mirror the U.S’ domestic commitments. To encourage digital ecosystems, governments, private companies, and civil society must come together to establish the right incentives for all stakeholders while addressing capacity-building efforts, data privacy, human rights, and the impact on democratic processes, amongst others.
How Can That Transformation Happen?
Transformation can be led by uniting both supply and demand forces for strengthening digital ecosystems around the world. Access to connectivity if the principal foundation needed to successfully create a strong supply force through technology products and solutions, regulation, and policies, especially in sectors with significant opportunities to benefit, such as education, health, trade, and finance.
Simultaneously, demand can be generated by empowering citizens, consumers, and students with digital technologies through elements such as digital literacy, capacity building, and access to opportunities.
Ultimately, only the union of these components will drive and align appropriate incentives to an inclusive digital ecosystem. Such an approach will require multiple and simultaneous interventions, but they will enable catalytic investments providing access to new opportunities and businesses. The new path to development and economic growth is through digital inclusion. So, let's shift the paradigm from doing digital in development to doing development in a digital age, where digital enables and accelerates our development objectives.
Juan Camilo Mejia is a technical advisor for digital solutions and transformation in Palladium’s Data, Informatics, and Analytical Solutions practice. Liz Nerad is Director of Digital Solutions in Palladium’s Data, Informatics and Analytical Solutions practice, which specialises in developing, implementing, and transforming digital health systems. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.