Coronavirus Pandemic Pushes Countries to Bridge the Digital Divide

The coronavirus pandemic is shedding light on racial and socioeconomic inequalities that existed long before COVID-19 killed well over 500,000 people globally.

As more businesses shift to remote work and schools make arrangements for digital learning, the crisis is also bringing attention to the internet gap that permeates throughout the world. While more than 50% of the world now has digital access, the divide is still wide, especially in developing countries.

But if there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, experts say, it’s that governments and organizations are being spurred by an “unbelievable call to action” to make the world more connected, according to Jane Coffin, a senior vice president for internet growth at the Internet Society.

“It is changing things overnight that would have taken years to change.”

Change is sorely needed. About 3.6 billion people are not connected to the internet, and there is a widening gender gap in terms of access, according to data released late last year by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union. And while about 54% of the world is now connected, that statistic is a bit misleading, according to Sonia Jorge, executive director of the World Wide Web Foundation’s Alliance for Affordable Internet. She says that number includes people who are “actually online in a very unreliable and limited way” — going on the internet once every three months, for example.

Africa stands out as an unfortunate example of this lack of what Jorge describes as “meaningful connectivity,” or the ability to go online every day. Only about 25% of the continent has access to the internet in any way, she says. This lack of access has negative implications — only about 5% of the content on Wikipedia about Africa is created by people from the continent, according to Jovan Kurbalija, the founding director of DiploFoundation and the head of the Geneva Internet Platform. An International Telecommunication Union study from last year found that an increase of 10% in mobile broadband penetration in Africa would yield an increase of 2.5% in gross domestic product per capita.

Even for people who are able to access the internet, there are also issues around digital literacy, where users might not be able to take advantage of the benefits of being connected, says Robert Opp, the chief digital officer for the U.N. Development Programme.

“Where’s the user’s manual for the internet?” he asks. “It just doesn’t exist, right?”

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However, echoing Coffin, Opp says the pandemic has spurred action toward addressing these gaps. He notes that the U.N. Development Programme has been seeing “a lot of increased activity” with its partners, including governments asking the program how to bridge the internet divide in their countries. Kurbalija was the co-chairperson of the U.N.’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which provided recommendations that led to the release of the organization’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation last month.

Specific projects are also underway. The U.N. Development Programme has partnered with companies in both Namibia and Uganda to help market vendors in those countries connect with consumers online, according to a U.N. spokeswoman. The agency has also supported governments in Malawi, Senegal and Uganda in providing information and communications technology equipment and Zoom licenses in order to help them continue servicing citizens online.

In Kenya, high-altitude balloons recently started delivering internet service to citizens over a 31,000-square-mile area thanks to a partnership between a unit of Google’s parent company and a local web carrier, according to The New York Times. But Alice Munyua, director of Mozilla’s Africa innovation strategy, has some doubts about the project, saying it is “not really taking care of the last mile that we expected,” referring to the network chain actually reaching end users.

Projects like this would, however, build on the progress that has been made already in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. Coffin notes a report released last month by the Internet Society that found “exponential” growth in the amount of internet exchange points in the two countries. Jorge notes the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s role in helping Nigeria launch a National Broadband Plan earlier this year. President Muhammadu Buhari said in a written statement announcing the plan that “the need for ubiquitous broadband access cannot be overemphasized.”

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That said, Munyua cautions that infrastructure alone is not enough to bridge the digital gap.

“We focus so much on providing infrastructure in the form of broadband and balloons and all of that, but then forget, the critical last mile is very, very critical, that content that has to be relevant and local and locally accessible in local language,” she says. “So just having the internet is not enough if you don’t have information that is locally relevant.”

Cost matters, too. Munyua says more than half of people in Kenya use metered internet, which has data limitations. She says local mobile network operators have projects underway to make the services more accessible there.

Projects addressing the internet gap are in progress elsewhere in the world, as well. Opp says efforts are being made in India to match young volunteers with elderly people to get them online, noting the issue of digital literacy.

The Internet Society champions the aspect of community networks, where local communities start “do it yourself networks built by people, for people.” Coffin says these types of networks have been successful in areas from rural Oregon to Argentina to the Republic of Georgia. She adds that the society has also found some success helping to connect tribal communities in the U.S. — which she describes as “wildly unconnected” — to the internet, noting a recent project with a community in Hawaii.

While these projects and many others are promising, Jorge says “we are really far from where we need to be” when it comes to narrowing the digital divide. But Coffin says the pandemic “has created an accountability mechanism,” especially when it comes to governments announcing broadband plans.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” she says.

Exposing the internet gap is crucial, adds Munyua, because now it’s a matter of health due to the ongoing crisis.

“If we don’t get information to people, you know, it really is about life and death,” she says.

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