Bridging the digital divide
Published 26 July 2022
The widening digital divide between and within countries in the Asia Pacific is exacerbating inequality where populations without broadband access have suffered disproportionately. Collaboration among governments, the private sector and development partners is the key to creating a more prosperous, inclusive, resilient and sustainable digital future.
The Asia Pacific is both hyper-connected and under-connected. While the region hosts leaders in 5G and fibre rollouts, many developing countries are either largely offline or suffer from unaffordable and unreliable digital services. Closing the digital divide was never more critical than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where populations without broadband access have suffered disproportionately and fallen further behind in education, health and other socio-economic outcomes.
The success of the region’s collective digital future hinges on how well and how soon we provide the affordable, accessible, resilient and reliant digital infrastructure needed for the foundation and operation of an inclusive digital society. Securing an inclusive digital future for all, including the most vulnerable, is an urgent policy priority. Achieving this ambition will require rethinking how we view and address the digital divide.
The digital divide between and within countries has not only persisted but is arguably widening. According to International Telecommunications Union, nearly 40 per cent of the population in the Asia Pacific remained unconnected in 2021, with non-users disproportionately concentrated in rural and remote communities and within the female population.
There is also a vast difference in internet quality between and within countries. China’s national average mobile broadband download speed (202 Mbps) was nearly 12 times that of landlocked countries in the region, while the fixed broadband download speed in Thailand (109 Mbps) and the South Korea (103 Mbps) were four times higher than the average across the region, according to a 2021 study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
At this pace, the region will also miss 2025 Advocacy Targets set by the United Nations Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development around universal connectivity, affordability, skills, access, equality and use. For instance, 15 ADB developing member countries have yet to achieve the 2 per cent (Gross National Income per capita) affordability target of 1.5 GB for mobile and 5 GB for fixed broadband access per month. When looking at the breakup of this national-level target by income group, affordability remains a problem for low-income segments of the population.
Global targets have been outpaced by the evolving requirements and consumer behaviour from pandemic-induced digital acceleration. E-learning, remote health and temporary work from home are now essential to full social and economic inclusion, and their data requirements represent a new paradigm for connectedness.
A 2021 World Bank report investigating how Indonesia’s education system can overcome the losses from the COVID-19 pandemic found that traffic use of learning apps or online schooling was typically around a gigabyte a day, far beyond the entry-level standard by the Broadband Commission. According to proceedings from the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2021 conference, video calls on popular platforms like Google Meet and Zoom are particularly resource-intensive and can consume up to a gigabyte of traffic in a single hour.
Looking forward, Ericsson’s 2021 mobility report found the monthly global average mobile data consumed per user exceeded 10 GB in 2021 and predicts that global average use will reach 35 GB per month in 2026. This means the current standards of entry-level internet of between one to five GB per person is far from adequate. An ever-increasing bucket of data well beyond the current goals should be available for 2 per cent of Gross National Income per capita to achieve meaningful connectivity.
Simply providing broadband coverage is not enough to meet people’s needs. The presence of internet service at an address does not mean the service has the quality to support video calls or data access or has the network capacity to support the applications users require for meaningful participation in the digital economy. Given the duality of digitalisation — as a pathway out of poverty or a tool for misuse and abuse — it is ever more critical to ensure that digital participation leads to net positive development outcomes.
Tracking progress towards access to and adoption of technology is important but insufficient. Existing metrics of digital progress tend to be confined in the silos — mobile, digital finance, digital health and digital government — despite the cross-cutting nature of digital technologies. They also tend to focus on the availability and usage of services without mechanisms for measuring impact.
Achieving universal access will not be easy or cheap. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that US$428 billion is required in investment between now and 2030, a third of which needs to come from public sources.
While digital investment has been and will continue to be the remit of the private sector, there are unique and important roles for development finance from multilateral development banks or other donors to play in closing the digital gap.
One is to assist governments in closing the market efficiency gap by addressing market failures and optimising regulatory and investment conditions for the private sector. In many developing countries, regulations and market interventions have not kept pace with technological advances and licensing structures are not conducive to competition or innovation. As private-sector investment in digital connectivity requires heavy up-front investment and a long runway to recoup costs, governments need to crowd in the private sector for much-needed investment and promote market-based solutions by streamlining rules and regulations and improving the business environment.
The second is to contribute to closing the access gap in communities deemed by the private sector to be too expensive to serve due to low population density, difficult terrain or poverty levels. Here, development finance can support governments to fill the gaps through targeted measures like smart subsidies or universal service funds.
Development finance can also encourage innovation — in technologies, business models and use cases — and assist in identifying and demonstrating the feasibility and viability of innovative and emerging technologies in serving the unconnected.
Development finance can augment government efforts to build a digitally literate and skilled society. Lack of digital skills currently prevents many from getting online or limits the ability to get the most out of digital opportunities, creating a usage gap. Poor digital literacy also exposes vulnerable populations to potential threats and abuse such as cyberattacks or scams.
Collaboration among governments, the private sector and development partners is the key to creating a more prosperous, inclusive, resilient and sustainable digital future. We must all do our part to achieve meaningful digital connectivity for all for a successful digital future for our region.
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