Bridging the Digital Divide: For a Sustainable, Innovative Economy

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

September 22, 2023

We live in an increasingly interconnected world, and access to internet is no longer considered a luxury; but a fundamental necessity. The internet has significantly transformed the way we work, communicate, educate, or even access essential services. 

Internet access has created a more equitable and inclusive society, having profound implications in education, employment, healthcare, economic growth, and social inclusion.

Nevertheless, digital divides remain, preventing millions of people from enjoying the benefits of the digital economy. Concerted efforts by the global community is required to bridge this gap, ensuring that universal access to safe and affordable internet is provided to all.

Such and many more topics will be discussed at the Horasis Global Meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Gaziantep, Türkiye between 22-23 October 2023. The meeting will bring together the world’s best-known business leaders, who along with government officials and representatives from international organizations will brainstorm with senior members of the Horasis Visions Community to find solutions to critical challenges facing corporations and societies today.

COVID-19 a Test Bed

The onslaught of the pandemic was an important catalyst in putting the spotlight on the importance of universal internet access. Throughout the pandemic, having access to internet meant continuation of normal life, including work, relationships and commerce. It also greatly enabled the functioning of crucial public services. 

The pandemic also witnessed a surge in many people moving their daily habits such as buying groceries to digital ordering. A total of 1.18 billion people were added to the internet between 2019 to 2022. And this number looks to expand in the years to come as more elements of our work, and also our public and private lives, get further integrated and facilitated by digital technologies. 

The pandemic also laid bare the vast disparities underlying the digital divide. Regardless of whether students had connectivity or safe access to the internet, most learners around the world were pushed to online learning. This will certainly impact future earnings for the generation of students who could not go online and also for economies, particularly developing and low-income countries that were already reeling under low economic development.

Benefits of Digital Inclusion

Digital divide is a reality and closing it has many benefits. It accelerates development, by enabling access to quality education and fosters gender equality, and also allows economic growth through growth in industry, innovation, and infrastructure.

Also economically, in low-income countries, “a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration yields a 2% increase in GDP; and, for middle-income countries, a 10% increase in both mobile and fixed broadband penetration yields a 1.8% and 0.5% increase in GDP respectively.”

Furthermore, enabling universal internet access also positively impacts job growth. In Africa, the arrival of fast internet has resulted in an increase of between 6.9% to 13.2% in jobs, regardless of education level. 

Universal internet access will also be a boon to drive away inequality and instill inclusivity globally. Take the case of fintech which has helped in opening financial services for billions of people around the world. Digital financial services are expanding opportunities for women, increasing their engagement in the formal economy and strengthening their resilience to financial, economic, and health shocks.

Closing the Digital Divide

Investment necessary to close the digital divide is estimated at US$450 billion. This will require a concerted effort. There are three key policy recommendations:

– Demand for 4G needs to pick up with coordinated efforts by both the public and private sectors. The government will need to come forward with investments supporting increase in smartphone access; help build digital skills among users; and improve internet connectivity to stimulate attractiveness of 4G internet among those who are offline. 

– Regulatory and policy reforms will be required to bring down prices of smartphones and internet connection, so that it is easily accessible and affordable by all. Countries that do not have the financial capability need to be supported by neighboring countries to drive universal internet access. 

– A coalition of political will and capacity will be required, where both institutional and global investors need to work together to increase investments or diversify existing funds to expand broadband access of 4G at marginal cost.

Closing the digital divide will benefit everyone. For developing countries, it will be an essential tool aiding economic development; while investing in internet inclusivity of Global South nations will be critical for Global North’s future prosperity and resilience.

Photo Caption: More must be done to close the global digital divide.