The term ‘digital divide’ is used to describe the disparity between people who are connected online – through information communication technologies (ICT) – and those who are not. The issue is prevalent within many different walks of life, but it is most pronounced in the developing world. It predominantly affects women, children, the elderly, and people living rural areas who don’t have easy access to the internet. 

There are three key factors at play here. The first is availability of the internet; depending on where people live there might not be any form of connectivity. The second factor is cost; When people don’t live in cities or populated areas, they must pay a premium, or travel for miles to access the internet. In the instances where communities are struggling to make ends meet and governments are dealing with serious issues such as poor sanitation and famine, creating a robust broadband infrastructure is a low priority.  The third factor is often a lack of understanding or awareness. It is common for children to leave the education system early to run the household or to look after siblings, meaning that technology-based opportunities fall by the wayside. 

‘Digital poverty’ accurately describes the situation for those who are starved of the opportunities that internet access can bring. Many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – such as gender equality, fair healthcare systems, innovation and good education – require strong information and communications technology systems to be achievable. For developing countries to truly make a difference to their circumstances, governments need to tackle the fundamental issue of connectivity first. 

Around 364 million young people aged between 15 and 24 around the world don’t have internet access at their schools. Even from a young age, they are at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers in the developed world. A UN report states that every month, 10 million young people reach working age. If the digital divide isn’t tackled, a youth unemployment crisis could be looming as well as a booming global population. 

Rural communities need to have easy and affordable access to the internet. Take Kenya as an example. It is East Africa’s largest economy and internet penetration is at 90 percent according to the Kenyan Communications Authority (KCA). However, this relates to those living in urban areas. 

Gaining access to 4G or even 3G services is an issue for many Kenyans living in rural areas. As a result, people tend to buy basic mobile phones with longer battery life – and no internet capabilities – instead of smartphones because of unreliable power sources. SEARCH (Sustainable East African Research in Community Health) reveals that internet access and affordability are some of the biggest challenges facing the country’s population. Innovative connectivity solutions are needed, and thankfully, they are beginning to emerge.

Poa! Internetis an example of a start-up company dedicated to change lives in Kenya by providing affordable internet. It has developed the Poa! Smart Tower Network (PSTN). The towers offer low cost Wi-Fi technology and they are radically changing the cost of delivering the internet, making deployment to low income and rural communities commercially viable. The company also uses low-cost Wi-Fi-based equipment to build wireless networks in rural communities, bridging the gap between where access is required and where fibre networks finish. 

Instead of using a direct to consumer model, Poa! enables local small businesses to re-sell and deliver internet access to their community which helps to encourage entrepreneurship and boost employment opportunities. The towers currently support over 2,000 home customers and 25,000 public Wi-Fi customers across Nairobi, as well as providing free internet to over 100 community locations such as schools, health centres and youth groups.

India suffers with similar connectivity issues. The country has 18 per cent of the world's population and a workforce of more than 520 million people, but digital literacy is a problem, and amongst females in particular. Three quarters of women have never used the internet according to Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Four in ten girls aged between 15-18 are also leaving school without finishing their education, and only a third of women (34 percent) have access to mobile technology. By investing in its female population and improving connectivity, India has one of the greatest opportunities to change its economic fortunes. 

Gram Marg is a start-up company which has manufactured systems to achieve sustainable rural connectivity in India. It is a rural broadband initiative from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, that has been working to enable broadband connectivity to remote, unserved rural areas since 2012.  As well as developing software-based network planning tools, Gram Marg has a prototype device which uses gaps in the TV spectrum to provide rural broadband services. The company has also created a software-based network planning tool called BharatNet that aides the large-scale deployment of connectivity networks. It aims to connect 250,000 village councils (Gram Panchayats) with high-speed connectivity. 

Both Gram Marg and Poa! Internet’s work has been recognised by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity. Enabling connectivity for all is just the first step in closing the digital divide; much more will need to be done, but it nevertheless represents a major milestone.  The digital rich will continue to use the internet in increasingly sophisticated ways and there will always be a gap between those just starting to explore digital opportunities and those who are fully exploiting and innovating.  The challenge is to minimise that gap, so that everyone benefits from the digital world.

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