SACRAMENTO — The COVID-19 pandemic has made digital connectivity more critical than ever, placing those who remain offline at greater risk of falling even further behind.
There are many barriers to internet access and usage in low- and middle-income countries, including poor network coverage, device affordability, and low digital literacy. Despite the recognition that closing the digital gap will be essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, 3.7 billion people, nearly half the world’s population, remain offline.
As governments prioritize internet access in their recovery stimulus packages, leaders from across sectors are calling for a rapid acceleration of efforts to extend meaningful connectivity, and support models that can reach the last mile.
Encouraging private sector investment
In the weeks and months following the outbreak of COVID-19, countries with robust digital infrastructure were at an advantage, as they were able to support remote working, telemedicine, distance learning, and other essential activities during times of social distancing.
“The key priority moving forward is connecting cross-sectors — health, education, financial services and others — with digital infrastructure and connectivity players to accelerate inclusion.”— Derek O’Halloran, head of the Future of Digital Economy and Society, World Economic Forum
But for LMICs, limited fiscal space in the post-COVID world will make investment in connectivity more challenging, Makhtar Diop, vice president for infrastructure at the World Bank Group, said in an email to Devex.
He called for public-private partnerships to build on this momentum of investment in digital infrastructure.
“While the pandemic demonstrated the need for greater connectivity, it could actually widen the digital divide as private investments become constrained,” Diop said. “There are opportunities for governments to be innovative, creative and flexible in deploying different approaches to encourage private sector’s investments and collaboration and enable new business models.”
For example, in Colombia, the president issued a decree allowing telecom operators to invest in infrastructure serving low-income and rural populations instead of paying for spectrum permits.
Connectivity is deeply personal for Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer at Google and Alphabet, who shared what the company is doing to close the digital divide at the World Bank meetings.
The World Bank has joined forces with the International Telecommunication Union, GSMA — the industry organization for mobile network operators — and the World Economic Forum in an accelerated action plan convening leaders in virtual roundtables to discuss which emergency measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis might work in the long term recovery.
‘The limits of the leapfrog’
In LMICs, the predominant use of the internet is through mobile network operators.The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how mobile connectivity is necessary, but not sufficient, said Ben Matranga, managing partner of Connectivity Capital, an impact investment fund that provides debt financing to internet service providers in LMICs.
Even when people do have access to the internet, if it is not fast or affordable, they will only use it when absolutely necessary, rather than leveraging its full potential.
“We call it the limits of the leapfrog,” Matranga said.
While mobile phones play an essential role, slow connections can mean that people do not have access to just-in-time information, and learning and working from home require internet connections at faster speeds for their other devices, he explains.
Governments and development finance institutions have mechanisms to support mobile network operators and major infrastructure projects, like undersea fiber cables, he said. But while most countries have just a few mobile network operators, they will have hundreds of internet service providers, making it a diffuse market that is hard for DFIs to support.
Connectivity Capital aims to support ISPs with growth capital that falls somewhere in between the money they might raise from family and friends and the larger scale financing available from DFIs.
Through blended finance deals, grantmakers can play an important role in buying down risks for ISPs, Matranga added.
Engaging across sectors
A fast, stable, and affordable connection remains a luxury for most people, said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.
“In today's digital economy, meaningful digital access needs to be considered a fundamental pillar supporting the functioning of every society,” she said in an email to Devex, echoing her remarks in a number of virtual meetings this year.
Looking beyond the COVID-19 crisis, Bodan-Martin has called for the government and industry partners to cooperate on a “global big dig” to get people without access connected as quickly as possible.
In mid-December, ITU launched a new guide designed to support decision-makers in funding, regulating, and implementing connectivity solutions in rural and remote areas.
There is a need for more awareness, funding, and collaboration for the global community to act on a new United Nations road map, says Undersecretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild, special adviser for digital cooperation.
This year taught people who had not previously focused on digital inclusion “the critical importance of internet connectivity as a tool of resilience for countries to continue with economic activity and growth, as well as to deliver on social development programing,” said John Garrity, an independent consultant to public and private sector organizations working on digital inclusion, and co-author of the report.
The ITU guide advises decision-makers to review existing last-mile connectivity solutions and understand the characteristics and trade-offs of each of them, before selecting an appropriate solution for their context.
Increasingly, groups working to extend internet access to all are trying to engage leaders from other sectors.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in a short amount of time but the key priority moving forward is connecting cross-sectors — health, education, financial services and others — with digital infrastructure and connectivity players to accelerate inclusion and affordable access to digital technologies,” Derek O’Halloran, head of the Future of Digital Economy and Society at WEF, told Devex via email.
As WEF works together with the World Bank, GSMA, and ITU to extend connectivity to all, they are exploring public-private partnerships to engage stakeholders from sectors that may not have not traditionally focused on connecting the unconnected.