Bridging the Digital Divide: Internet Connectivity for the Global Rural Poor

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The digital divide continues to be a growing concern, with more than 4 billion people around the world still without access to the Internet and other information and communications technology (ICT) tools. That is more than half the global population that is unable to reap the benefits of ICT, including improved education, health services, and business opportunities.

 

The problem also transcends geography because apart from the more immediately visible gap between industrial and developing countries, the digital divide also exists among economic classes within developed nations. Those living in urban areas and have the capacity to pay for ICT services are miles ahead of those who reside in rural areas that are not only underdeveloped in terms of infrastructure but also lack access to education and skills training to be able to use ICT tools and services at all.

 

Bridging the digital divide is a big question with no immediate answers. However, there are two important facets in addressing this problem on which governments and organizations around the world can focus.

 

Infrastructure Development

 

The most important factor for bridging the digital divide is building the ICT infrastructure needed to be able to provide the necessary services. This includes setting up signal towers and laying down cables, which may be a problem in remote locations and protected areas. Rural wireless internet solutions are ideal in these scenarios, especially because these are easy to set up with their minimal need for heavy equipment and complicated physical infrastructure. These wireless solutions can either be temporary or permanent fixes depending on each area’s individual situations, but they do pave the way for even more advanced infrastructure in the future.

 

For wired deployments, a “dig once policy” can also help in addressing the lack of infrastructure. Excavation is a necessary step whenever a company wants to install cables to upgrade Internet access to a community. If multiple service providers want to do the same, they will most likely end up digging in the same route that the previous company has just dug up and restored. This process is not only expensive but highly disruptive. A “dig once policy,” in essence, requires a road construction crew to lay a conduit, through which all future cables will pass, as they are building or repairing roads. This not only shortens the process of creating or upgrading broadband connections, it may also reduce deployment costs by up to 90 percent.

 

Addressing Educational Gaps

 

The latest ICT infrastructure may already be in place, but if the people who have access to it don’t know how to use these facilities properly to their advantage, then the infrastructure will be rendered almost useless. ICT plays an increasingly important role in learning and professional development. Thus, education programs should cover the value of ICT, as well as the proper use of relevant tools and technologies.

 

Proper education in the use of ICT tools will also help in the creation of content that’s relevant to the community. For example, rural communities may put more value on social connectivity and government services, as opposed to mobile gaming. Another critical factor is technological scaling, which takes into account the devices that are (1) available and/or (2) popular in the area. The latest technologies like AR and VR may not be relevant or useful to some communities, where most people can afford phones with limited processing power only.

 

Bridging the digital divide also needs policy-making support. Governments the world over need to understand the value of harnessing ICT not only in education but also for overall economic development.

 

The Internet has a huge potential as a valuable tool for doing good. It gives people access to a wealth of information that encourages creativity and paves the way for more important discoveries. And while technology has its own downsides, the more we use it, the more opportunities for positive change we open as well.

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