It's time to get the world online

Closing the global digital divide is in everyone's long-term interests

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. Today’s edition is about the global digital divide and what’s needed to ensure everyone has access to the opportunities the internet brings.

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by Roxanne Bamford and Chris Yiu

The pandemic has highlighted both the significance of the internet and the enduring scale of the digital divide. Through lockdowns and restrictions many of us have continued to work, learn and stay in touch online — but half the world’s population remains unconnected.

Unsurprisingly, the digital divide is not evenly distributed. The majority of the world’s offline population lives in low- or middle-income countries (LMICs). Along with the country a person lives in, gender is also a factor: globally, women are 23 per cent less likely than men to use the mobile internet.

There are many barriers to greater participation, with access to networks, affordability, literacy, digital skills and a lack of locally-relevant content all reported by people as important factors.

These are often compounded by other challenges, including:

  • Telecoms companies and device manufacturers that prefer to focus on higher-income segments with greater purchasing power

  • Markets that are are uncompetitive or even closed; an estimated 260 million people are served by only one major mobile network operator

  • A lack of consumer demand, even when networks are available

  • Infrastructure investments that are assessed for returns over short horizons, whilst new markets can take longer to become established

Whatever the barriers people face and the reasons for them, the impact is stark. To take just one example: the Covid-19 crisis forced 94% of learners worldwide to continue their education at home, regardless of whether or not they had connectivity or safe access to the internet.

A clear-cut case for action

The global digital divide — and the ambition close it — has been with us since the early days of the internet, and the events of the last year have only underlined the economic and moral case for doing more.

The costs of getting everyone online are large in isolation but outweighed massively by the benefits that would accrue, particularly for LMICs. Closing the gap by 2030 would cost in the region of $450 billion, for an estimated economic return of $8.7 trillion. Covering a third of the necessary investment from public funds would require member countries of the Development Assistance Committee to contribute just 0.02% of their gross national income (or 3% of the 0.7% aid target set by the UN).

Expanding internet access doesn’t just help to alleviate poverty and transform prospects for LMICs. A better-connected world benefits everyone. It opens up new markets and new opportunities for trade, as well as new channels for people from different backgrounds to make connections and generate new ideas.

Furthermore, without concerted action to close the divide now, the risk of the future internet being broken apart into competing regional domains increases. The further down the road we go toward a so-called splinternet, the greater the geopolitical and security challenges we are storing up for the decades ahead.

What needs to happen

Faster progress on universal internet access requires three main things.

First, a focused programme to stimulate demand for 4G and equivalent services, to make more infrastructure investments viable. The private sector can and should provide investment to expand 4G or equivalent broadband coverage around the world, but the demand from consumers needs to be there to justify it. Public investment to increase smartphone access, build digital skills and encourage the creation of locally-relevant content will go some way toward this.

Second, bold measures to open up markets and drive down prices for consumers. Important steps here will include regulatory reforms to increase telecommunications market competition, and policy reforms to reduce the taxes on basic smartphones and data that often contribute to internet use being prohibitively expensive for many people. National broadband plans will be critical for aligning regulatory reforms, public investments and private incentives.

Third, global coordination to diversify and expand broadband investment vehicles. The vast majority of the investment required in the years ahead will be for network expansion and maintenance. Private sector players can and should shoulder most of this, with public capital investment focused on projects that are very unlikely to be commercially viable in isolation. But the two need to go hand-in-hand and be supported by a wider range of investment vehicles to enable this coordination.

Across all of these fronts, donor countries can provide critical support for leaders to make policy changes that are necessary but politically or fiscally difficult in the short term. Regional coordination, such as that currently exhibited by Smart Africa, can also help bring partners together to collaborate on shared projects and common goals.

The political moment

Closing the global digital divide will bring new opportunities to billions of people, and is a chance to project and strengthen liberal values around the world.

Even though the economic case for action is clear, making faster progress will take determined political leadership. On this there is cause for cautious optimism, with a new administration in the White House and with the world resolving to do better as we recover and rebuild from the shock of the pandemic. Global internet access should therefore be a priority for the United States and the European Union, and for the G20 Summit in Rome this October.

The great development challenge of our generation is unlocking opportunity for all, and in the 21st century this will only be possible when everyone has access to the internet and the global digital commons. For those that believe in an open and interconnected world, and for those that recognise that shared prosperity brings shared security, redoubling efforts to close the global digital divide should be top of the agenda.

Read the full report