The Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need to bridge the digital divide, as 3.7 billion people now live without basic internet connectivity, experts say.
The health crisis has exposed the structural weaknesses in the global digital inclusion agenda, bringing to the fore increasing inequalities between and within the countries, according to experts at an online panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Governance Summit.
“In the past months, we have witnessed the essential role that access to good connectivity and digital services play during a crisis situation,” Bocar Ba, chief executive of the South Asia, Middle East and North Africa (Samena) Telecommunications Council, said.
“Nearly 47 per cent of the world population is still excluded from connectivity and this exclusion accelerated during the crisis … Covid-19 is not likely the last crisis and more could come … this is a new normal that relies heavily on technology.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced countries last year to impose widespread movement restrictions and prompted offices and schools to transition to remote working. However, the outbreak also exposed the steep digital divide between the countries, as those with poor connectivity lagged behind developed ones.
In the developed countries, the internet penetration rate is 87 per cent but just 47 per cent in developing countries and 19 per cent in the least developed countries, according to a report by the International Telecommunication Union.
Samena estimated that an investment of $428 billion is required to connect those without internet.
“The digital participation gap that we are trying to fulfil requires investment and no one group or entity can possibly meet the requirement [alone] … if we don't act promptly enough, digital gaps may take on other, more challenging forms,” said Mr Ba.
It is important to identify existing digital gaps and be vocal about their impact if left unattended, panellists said.
The pandemic has shown the significance of digital inclusion and technologies, S Iswaran, Singapore’s Minister of Communications and Information, told the panel.
“This is important not only from the point of view of strengthening our resilience against the pandemic but also for having a strong foundation for our post-pandemic recovery.”
“The digital divide is a global challenge that we must take seriously … as seriously as we take the challenge that digitalisation poses to our competitiveness from an economic point of view,” Mr Iswaran said.
Industry experts said if the countries want to reap the future dividends of a digital economy, they have to ensure that “digital divide is at least minimised, if not eliminated”.
“Digital divide manifests urban and rural divide, developed and developing countries divide … and also [the divide] within the developed countries,” Mr Iswaran said.
In the US, nearly 97 per cent of people in urban areas have access to a high-speed, fixed-line internet service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65 per cent and on tribal lands to 60 per cent, according to the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency of the US government.