Prospects for widespread adoption of digital technology should be rosy. This year, for the first time, over half the people on earth will have an Internet connection. According to Huawei’s Global Connectivity Index, whose latest rankings were announced in April, connectivity around the world rose 5% in 2015. Global 4G coverage increased by 61%, while smartphone penetration was up 18%. Indeed, more than 87% of the world’s population is within range of a mobile signal, and there are now more cell phone subscriptions than there are people on earth.
Yet as many as 1 billion people have no basic phone service, while an additional 3 billion lack a broadband connection. In emerging economies, two-thirds of people have no Internet access. In both developed and emerging economies, people remain digitally unconnected for a variety of reasons: insufficient network connections, not enough local-language services, poor computer skills, disabilities such as blindness – and, sometimes, a low interest in getting online because the benefits may not be immediately obvious.
Indeed, there are those who say connectivity is a worthy goal but should be set aside until more basic necessities are in place. Yet digital technologies can stimulate commerce, enhance productivity and improve public health, education and safety. The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals, signed last September by 193 member states, explicitly recognize the role of information communications technology (ICT) in helping raise living standards and fueling economic growth.
ICT’s power to transform lives is now so great that governments, regulators and ICT leaders must work collaboratively to narrow the digital divide. But they must do so in ways that are not only effective, but sustainable as well: many projects that seek to use ICT for development purposes fail to cover their operating costs and, as a result, never make it beyond the pilot stage. Last year, Huawei interviewed 150 telecom operators, government leaders, NGOs and social enterprises in 11 countries to see which approaches to digital enablement were most effective and resulted in lasting positive change. Our research uncovered three main findings.
The digital divide may not be widening, but it is deepening.
First, projects are unsustainable unless they provide services valuable enough that people are willing to pay for them. Most digital enablement programs don’t do this, and consequently fail to cover their costs.
Making these programs sustainable requires a more commercial, revenue-oriented model. Although unconnected people are often poor, digital enablement projects should not necessarily aim to provide services completely free of charge. Instead, the focus should be on creating services valuable enough that someone will pay for them. Even if the amounts are small, or if the services are paid for by a government body or third-party entity, they must create value – either by generating revenue, or reducing costs, or by providing some other concrete benefit.
E-voting, for example, is funded by governments that avoid the cost of sending ballot papers to people in inaccessible, remote areas and counting them by hand. Focusing on value creation ensures that whoever pays is receiving something worth paying for – greatly increasing the chances of an ongoing revenue stream, and removing the need for perpetual donations.
Second, digital enablement projects must be scalable. Huawei’s research shows that many programs stall at the pilot stage. Development models skewed toward brainstorming and prototypes give insufficient thought to scaling up after launch. Unfortunately, this pattern is so common that some countries have actually banned projects that appear unsustainable.
But appearances can be deceiving, as shown by Bridge International, an organization that runs 400 for-profit schools for students in Uganda and Kenya and charges tuition of about US$6 a month. Bridge keeps costs low by using ICT to standardize school construction, teacher training, lesson delivery, and administrative functions. It accepts no cash, requiring parents to pay by smartphone. A model of scalability, Bridge opens a new school every few days, and aims to teach 10 million children over the next decade.
Third, digital connectivity must be marketed. There is an old saying about life insurance: that it isn’t bought, it’s sold, meaning few people want the product unless someone explicitly spells out its benefits. Connectivity is like that with some populations. But the solution can be simple. In Cameroon, for example, Bridge Africa (not connected to Bridge Academies) promotes digital literacy by sending door-to-door salesmen to explain how farmers can use social media to sell more produce – and giving them SIM cards which the farmers can use to get online using a cell phone.
We must create new models, and new thinking, to reach the digitally unconnected.
Huawei’s research also shows that the world’s most digitally connected countries aim to enhance user experience and stimulate demand, rather than focusing exclusively on providing cheaper connections. People in those countries tend to want more mobile broadband access, more e-commerce options, and more cloud computing services and data analytics.
The digital divide may not be widening, but it is deepening. There are growing disparities in the options available to connected versus unconnected populations, with the latter facing gaps in life expectancy, job skills, and economic growth prospects. Soon, consumers with wearables will become healthier, drivers with Internet of Vehicles technology will experience less traffic congestion and suffer fewer accidents, and countries that employ agricultural sensors will enjoy a more secure food supply.
Connectivity provides access to valuable information and resources, while cloud computing, Big Data, and the Internet of Things hold out the prospect of new services and business models. Given the deepening gaps in connectivity between the world’s online and offline populations, we must create new models, and new thinking, to reach the digitally unconnected.
This article was originally published by ET Times on June 3, 2016.