The digital divide is increasing the divide between different strata of society and creating an even bigger gap between people who use technology vs people who don’t. This will only become a bigger problem as this gap increases causing fissures in society. Governments and organizations are facing no shortage of challenges in addressing this. What new levers can bridge this digital gap?
The digital world is exposing us to the promises and perils of digital technologies. The explosion of smartphones and growing internet users enabled 95% of the world’s population to connect to a mobile broadband network. While mobile has been driving digital inclusion, 3.6 billion across the world remain unconnected because of socio‐economic, geographical, educational, attitudinal and generational factors. At the same time, 40% of this unconnected population covered by a mobile broadband network do not yet use the internet.
The State of Mobile Connectivity report 2022 mentions the connectivity gap and usage gap as the main challenges of today’s digitally excluded population. Though COVID-19 accelerated digital growth by giving access to information, services, education, healthcare and jobs, the unconnected population—who are mostly living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)—were excluded from playing an active role in this increasingly digital world.
The growing digital divide
UNESCO reveals the global illiteracy rate is at 773 million people, because of this a significant percentage of the worldwide population can’t use a text-based internet. Due to COVID-19, 463 million or 31% of schoolchildren worldwide can’t be reached by digital learning programs due to a lack of remote policies or equipment. Of the world’s 7000 languages, English and a handful of other languages dominate the internet leaving many cultures without a voice online.
Africa is currently the least connected in the world and about $100 billion worth of investments are needed to boost capacity. There is a section of the population struggling to catch up on 2G, 3G and 4G coverage, making them less capable of coping with the larger issues of rising energy prices, climate change, and healthcare, while being unable to take advantage of income-generating opportunities from areas like education.
Even, America still lives with a digital divide with wide variations seen across 50 states. For instance, as 55 million students moved to online learning during the pandemic, 70% of children in the Kansas City school district did not have internet access at home.
The rapid shift to digitalization opened the long-standing issues of the urban and rural digital divide that need to be addressed by future economic, education and digitalization policies.
Risks of leaving the unconnected world behind
With the changing technological landscape, connectivity is a lifeline for working, learning and accessing essential services—and those on the wrong side of the digital divide are falling behind. The repercussion of this divide is that the broader world will miss out on their voices, skills, labor demands and contributions.
The impact of the digital divide not only affects job opportunities in less competitive economies or lower student performance, it also undermines workers, labors and organizations with limited access to real-time information.
With the UN prescribing universal and meaningful digital connectivity as key to enabling digital transformation, technological discrimination is depriving some citizens of essential resources for development and wealth generation. Some of the dire consequences of the digital divide are digital illiteracy, access to quality employment, social isolation and gender discrimination.
The challenges of digital inclusion: accessibility, adoption and affordability
As governments and organizations build the infrastructure, online tools and services for the next generation of technology-powered demands, fixing the digital divide needs to be a priority. The UN included the reduction of the digital divide (SDG 9) in its Sustainable Development Goals, and other initiatives have been launched to bridge the digital divide.
Closing the gap requires targeted actions around affordability, accessibility, adoption and by all stakeholders, including mobile operators, policymakers, international partners, tech giants and the broader private sector.
Affordability: Affordability of handsets, broadband and data remains a key challenge. Strategies to improve affordability should include equity of broadband access across income groups, broadband speed, efforts to lower the cost of handsets and data and innovative data pricing strategies, along with providing subsidies that promote the uptake of internet-enabled devices and data services.
Accessibility: The powers that be need to prioritize measures to provide affordable, reliable, quality and accessible internet. This needs to include targeted measures to provide free, equitable access to the internet for E-learning and improve digital literacy. Making the internet accessible to children, marginalized, vulnerable, rural and diverse communities and people with disabilities should also be a priority. Recent research shows that an increase of 10% in mobile broadband penetration leads to 1.5% GDP growth, with even higher impacts of 2.5–2.8% GDP growth in LDCs.
Adoption: A collective effort is needed to bridge the digital divide and remove the key barriers to internet adoption. Today, 44% of adults in LMICs are still not using mobile internet despite being covered by a mobile broadband network. They face a range of barriers that prevent them from adopting and using mobile internet, including a lack of digital skills and knowledge, affordability, safety and security concerns (harassment and theft) and a lack of relevant content and services.
Crossing the digital divide
Tech organizations can play a major role in accountability. For instance, Google and the state of California collaborated to connect 100,000 rural households and Facebook’s fiber network helped connect multiple educational institutions in North Carolina.
HCLTech’s TechBee program also offers digital skill training to help men and women in India enter global careers in technology. Not only that, HCLTech has also partnered with various government organizations and skill development missions to create an employable skilled workforce, contributing to the "Skill India" mission of the Government of India.
The cost of the digital divide is high. The COVID-19 pandemic has displayed the issues of digital equity and access. It’s time to urgently act on closing the digital gap.
The Code4YOUth Hackathon
In addition to these initiatives, HCLTech has partnered with Nestle and The Global Alliance for YOUth to run the Code4YOUth Hackathon.
The Code4YOUth Hackathon will launch on February 28th 2023 and aims to close the digital divide, while sparking creativity and confidence amongst youth, in a digital-first culture.
Young people need a safe and favorable space to brainstorm and try out new ideas. This hackathon will provide the environment to do just that.
To find out more about this initiative that is driving innovation and inclusive change, click here.