As part of an ongoing policy project looking at the global digital divide, we have been holding a series of expert roundtables to explore different aspects of the problem. This blog post reflects on the relationship between internet access and international development and is the first in a series over the coming weeks.
Since the start of the pandemic, technology has enabled many of us to continue to work, to learn, to maintain relationships and to access public services. Yet nearly half of the world’s population remains offline, and closing the global digital divide remains low on the political agenda.
Solving this immense challenge will require committed collaboration by stakeholders across the public and private sphere, drawing from their expertise and interests to shape an investment commitment that all can get behind. We recently convened a group to discuss this topic, focusing on the links between universal internet access and development, the factors that may limit progress, and how the costs and benefits break down. [_]
How can achieving universal internet access lead to transformational development?
For vast swathes of the global population, Covid-19 has led to a forced migration as work and social life migrated online. In the words of one participant “it's got to be digital or you're dead.”, with internet access now fundamental to a modern economy. Important questions globally are whether universal internet access is the most transformational intervention for development, whether it has the greatest long-term return on investment, and at what degree of national access returns diminish.
Digital leadership was identified as crucial. While few development projects are defined as independently transformational, there was optimism that universal access could be one of them. Leadership matters both in government, where political focus is needed, as well as from partners in the private sector, international organisations and beyond. A critical part of this is an enabling regulatory and policymaking environment.
Evidence is required. Although the importance of the internet is widely recognised, the data to support this is not always comprehensive. In particular, the literature on its direct impact on GDP per capita is not enough. A deeper understanding of the spill over effects in agriculture, health and education and other sectors is needed to make the case that connectivity is not just an enabler but transformational.
Policymakers need to see the people as well as the infrastructure. Internet users and their online needs are not all the same, so it is important to define what meaningful connectivity looks like. For example, 3G is insufficient if several children in a household are trying to access educational content, and a lack of electricity can negate everything else. We cannot rely on coverage alone and a menu of different tech solutions will be essential to close the access gap.
What factors may limit the benefits of universal internet access?
The digital divide is a multifaceted issue. In many parts of Africa even LTE connections are not available or affordable, and 4G is still a pipe dream. To realise the benefits of internet access, it is important to look beyond 4G coverage, but also beyond access to a device, the skills necessary to access the internet and the relevant content online to make it meaningful. We shouldn’t assume that once these conditions of access are met that take up will be addressed. Horizontal inequalities, and real as well as perceived online safety and security issues can limit the benefits of access.
Engagement at the community level is critical. Certain groups, including women or people with disabilities, might require specific support to be empowered as consumers, let alone to become producers of online content. Often the digital divide between urban and rural access cannot be solved by better coverage, affordability and relevance alone. Lessons can be learnt from prototypes that are working well in other arenas. Community health workers – for example – can help policymakers to understand the local situation, and bridge gaps and bring communities together to improve internet access.
Diversity in the people developing new technologies is an important factor to consider. The tech industry has a responsibility to ensure that the set of people developing new technologies is diverse so that the online space is inclusive and does not replicate, or indeed exacerbate, existing inequalities.
Online safety education and policies must be a priority. Digital skills training should include training on ethics and safety, and this should be incorporated into the school curriculum. Governments need to adopt and enforce the right regional and national policies to ensure everyone is safe – and feels safe – online. Significant regulatory gaps exist. For example, very few countries have signed or ratified the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection , and without such mechanisms in place it is much harder to prosecute for online crimes such as fraud. However, it is important to caution that policies implemented with the intent of improving security and online safety can themselves become an obstacle to access. For example, in Tanzania the government has recently introduced a law requiring online content creators to pay and register, likely to dampen the range and inclusivity of content available.
Accelerating digital inclusion requires a holistic approach which considers the demand as well as supply side. Digital adoption – not just access - should be at the core of all national priorities to ensure that governments capitalise on the opportunity that a connected citizenry affords in the effective delivery of their own specific agendas.
How do the costs and benefits of investing to close the divide compare?
At face value, the cost to reach universal internet access by 2030 – including 4G coverage, the policy interventions to make data affordable, and the investment to develop digital skills and relevant content – identified as ~USD428bn by the ITU,[_] is dwarfed by the anticipated economic benefit of doing so for all developing regions. Extrapolated from the ITU’s regional econometric analysis of the impact of increasing broadband penetration, universal internet access could deliver benefits from five times (Europe and Central Asia) to forty-five times (East Asia and Pacific) the investment cost. Whilst this does not include interventions to make devices affordable, the magnitude of the benefits significantly outweighs the costs to do so. The greatest challenge is rather the question of who pays, and thus where the political argument needs to lie.
The nature of investment varies significantly at the national level, and consequently the debate about where the financial burden should fall is complicated. A country-by-country cost benefit assessment for universal internet access is possible and is indeed underway for several countries. But the huge variation in the investment necessary – based on topography, population density, as well as income and personal expenditure levels – yields huge disparities as to what the market can shoulder alone.
We also cannot assume that mobile broadband access is enough for the developing world. There are significant distinctions between the benefits accrued through fixed broadband and mobile access, and whilst at lower income levels the economic returns from increasing mobile broadband are sizeable, as countries’ prosperity improves, the returns from fixed broadband overtake and become far more significant. As one participant commented, we all joined the roundtable on our laptops, and why shouldn’t we aspire for similar sophistication and productivity opportunities for the wider developing world?
One investment that to date has lagged behind are efforts to stimulate demand. There have been relatively few projects to develop digital skills and meaningful content to build the market, leaving a gap between anticipated demand and the ambition for investment in supply
Ultimately, the real challenge amongst the private and multilateral investment community has been one of definition. All participants agreed that internet access is an important public interest goal, and yet investment policies within the major MDB institutions still regularly consider internet access as a private interest goal to be solved primarily by the markets. It seems clear, however, that the investment necessary to reach the last mile, or moreover to ensure universal access, cannot be solved by commercial interests. If internet access is in the same class of policy goals as access to clean water or primary education, then it seems clear that more must be done to close the global digital divide.