How to fill the gaps in the response to the digital divide

A billboard announces the arrival of high-speed broadband internet in downtown Nukua'lofa, the capital of Tonga. Photo by: Tom Perry / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

There is growing awareness that connectivity is foundational to the global development agenda. But despite momentum for universal internet access, more than half the global population has never accessed the internet.

As the internet becomes ever more central to the lives of those who have access to it, those who do not are falling further behind, argue the authors of a new report called “Connecting the Next Four Billion.” With the digital divide increasingly becoming a development divide, major development players are now examining ways to narrow the gap and boost access.

The report — conducted by SSG Advisors with support from the Digital Impact Alliance and the U.S. Agency for International Development — outlines the barriers to access, maps the efforts to get people online, and identifies opportunities for collective action. The research resulted in three clear recommendations to catalyze universal access: mainstreaming access across the development agenda; amplifying innovative business models; and developing consistency in approaches to digital access.

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“There’s no question that research efforts are critical to understanding the connectivity landscape, but it’s going to be up to governments, technology companies, and investors to take action in the coming years,” said James Bernard, director of strategic partnerships at SSG Advisors, a team of global development and impact investing professionals behind the report.

“That means making sure that connectivity becomes a core component of every development project; it means that donors and others should work together to identify, nurture, and scale promising base-of-the-pyramid connectivity businesses; and it means that stakeholders should continue to connect on project successes and failures,” Bernard added.

The global development community plays an important role in turning high-level calls for action into on-the-ground results through development projects and national agendas, the report explains. The authors recommend a list of actions, including advocacy for legislation to support access goals, referencing the Digital GAP Act — a U.S. policy that supports the expansion of internet access in developing countries — as one example to consider.

“We have this recognition suddenly that connectivity can actually help achieve all of the global goals,” Nilmini Rubin, the vice president for international development at Tetra Tech and drafter of the Digital GAP Act, told Devex. “People need to feel empowered to build in the connectivity piece, not just as frosting on the cake, but baked in.”

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For Mobile Network Operators, or MNOs, declining average revenue per user, and a lack of network infrastructure, makes it challenging to monetize any further movement down market or into more rural areas. This prevents users from accessing online tools, perpetuating the problem of a digital divide becoming a development divide. It also creates an opportunity for development finance institutions to invest in established telecoms, so they can build new towers and increase reach or upgrade networks, and to support new solutions to the last mile challenge, such as TV white space.

But as a rule, the global development community tends to think in terms of vertical programs, such as agriculture, health, or education, whereas “connectivity is by its nature a horizontal engagement,” said Darrell Owen, a consultant who has worked with organizations including USAID on expanding affordable internet into rural communities.

This most recent report from SSG Advisors builds on a 2016 report called “Business Models for the Last Billion.”

“There is a need for greater leadership in this area by creating an actionable strategy to not just identify new business models, but to scale them within specific geographies or across regions,” the authors write. “In the absence of this coordinated strategy, there is a risk that donors and investors will continue to take a scattershot approach to scaling new business models, leaving only those enterprises that have resources, luck, and persistence with the ability to truly scale.”

The report mentions Microsoft, which is providing grants to organizations working to bring internet service to underserved markets as part of its Affordable Access Initiative, but says the need remains for additional financing for startups in the pilot stage.

“It’s really critical that donors make funding available for projects that will likely occur at small scale and for the banks — the regional development banks and others — to make bigger funding available to enable companies to scale up their great ideas,” Paul Garnett, director of Affordable Access Initiative at Microsoft, told Devex.

He emphasized how, just as technology companies are starting to increase their investments in areas such as adoption, to address issues such as basic literacy and digital literacy that can stand in the way of usage, global development organizations need to develop their understanding of technology, so they can discern between which approaches do and do not make sense to connect the unconnected.

These reports and industry events where their findings are discussed allow the range of stakeholders working on different solutions to the same problem to identify what is and is not working.

“We must all commit to connectivity — working together to curate best practices, advance unique technologies that are more cost effective at the last mile and synching our work to more efficiently target resources towards achieving the global connectivity goals,” said Kate Wilson, CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.