Bridging the Digital Divide for a Sustainable, Equitable and Peaceful Economy

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

May 10, 2023

Today, we live in an age of more-or-less ubiquitous internet thanks to the advent of cheaper smartphones and data, made possible by sharp rise in the deployment of connectivity infrastructure across the world. Globally, 68% of people today are using mobile phones, while 5.16 billion people use the internet.

Affordable internet connections have brought about significant benefits for society at large by simplifying and expanding access to a wealth of information, services and options. Now, people log on to the internet every single day to work, learn, be entertained and socialize. 

These trends were in place long before the pandemic, but in the wake of the crisis, the internet became a public utility—an essential source to support the continuation of education, work and everyday life. Research has shown that COVID-19 drove a surge in cashless transactions as the internet enabled the continuation of commercial activities. For small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMEs), these digital payments were lifelines to survive lockdowns. 

Furthermore, online learning finally gained ground, paving the way for entire education systems to truly understand the potential of emerging technologies and innovative teaching curriculum. What we could see in the future is an education sector better prepared to withstand sudden crises.

With several years of hindsight, it’s clear that more affordable and available internet connections helped mitigate the losses incurred from the pandemic. As businesses widely adopted remote work practices, it was the assurance of reliable internet connectivity that kept their operations running beyond the office space. A decade ago, even imagining the possibility of such a fragmented approach to work would have been impossible. 

Digital Divide Deepens Inequity

Given the proven value of digital services, the existence of the digital divide has worrying implications for social and economic equality. What’s more, early research is signaling that the divide has only deepened with the pandemic, helping to reinforce existing economic inequalities. 

Take for instance the digital divide experienced by students in an educational setting: those who lack access to online educational resources—typically those from poorer backgrounds or marginalized communities—may find themselves at a disadvantage from their peers with better access. This can have serious impacts on their education outcomes and, in the long term, hamper their future earning potential, socioeconomic mobility and ability to accumulate generational wealth. 

The digital divide can creep into all aspects of modern life. For example, poor internet access can exacerbate social isolation—especially among older adults—which has serious implications for their long-term health. In terms of the economy, the digital divide could limit access to jobs and higher wages, especially as digital skills are quickly becoming essential to the average workplace. In the long term, this can exacerbate income inequality and restrict economic growth potential. 

In fact, the digital divide can even exacerbate existing inequalities, such as those between rural and urban communities. Though rural and remote communities would undoubtedly reap more benefits from better access to telehealth services, these tend to be areas where internet connections are scarce or low-quality and communities are poorer. A 2021 survey revealed that telehealth services enable more timely care in rural areas and can also reduce rural patients’ tendencies to delay seeking care. 

The Access Imperative

Overcoming inequalities is one of the basic goals of global development, so it’s clear that improving digital access is needed for long-term, sustainable growth. This is especially as economic progressions becomes increasingly dependent on the availability of highly skilled personnel, regardless of industry. 

It’s a chicken and egg situation: to access these skills, digital technologies must be made affordable and available for all—but without sufficient digital skills, realizing technological innovation is not possible. Advanced technologies will be key to support companies’ digital transition and sustainable growth, which is why there is urgent need for industry to strongly invest in these tools. 

For government, digital tools will be a crucial ingredient to forge better, more resilient and proactive governance. We saw how, during the pandemic, apps and digitalized services helped public authorities stem the virus’s spread and ultimately mitigate its impact on society’s health. As the future progresses, these tools will become more important, not less. 

If society is serious about drastically improving socioeconomic mobility, growing incomes, boosting economic productivity and its overall quality of life, focusing on expansive digital access is non-negotiable. 

Reducing Digital Divide

Thankfully, there are already numerous projects underway to tackle this precise problem. 

The UK government, for one, has developed a digital inclusion strategy for residents of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly with the hopes to reduce the number of residents who have never used the internet by 25% by 2023. The strategy included action plans to increase access to free public WiFi while also enabling digital accessibility to remote and rural areas.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims to advance digital inclusion by investing in a constellation of more than 3,000 satellites in low earth orbit to provide fast and affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world.

Moving forward, it’s likely we’ll see even more innovative experiments and collaborations emerge as stakeholders look to address the digital divide. As the world continues to pursue sustainability and a resilient post-pandemic recovery, more will be needed to close the digital gap. 

Photo Caption: For digitalization to truly impact lives, it must first reach every strata of society.