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Global connectivity and digital divide: how to tackle challenges of digital inclusion

Despite the high participation in today's digital era, only 53.6% of the world’s population now use the Internet, and 93% live within the physical reach of Internet services: an estimated 3.6 billion people are affected by the digital divide.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the term “digital divide” refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels concerning both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet.

There are several barriers related to the digital divide. Countries often face struggles in financing the installation of fiber-optic cables because of their expensiveness, and connectivity providers tend not to sell their products to least developed countries due to their lower purchasing power. Indeed, the issue of affordability of access to the Internet can be considered the main cause of the digital divide trend. Just to give an example, in 19 of the least developed countries, the price of 5 Gigabytes of fixed broadband (fixed subscriptions to high-speed access to the public Internet) is more than 20% of the monthly gross national income per capita.

It is fundamental for governments of these countries to adopt concerted efforts to promote affordability since it is the most efficient way to have a tangible impact on societies. As an example, in Myanmar the creation of a competitive market decreased the cost of subscriber identity module cards (SIM cards) from $150 in 2013 to $1.50 in 2015, allowing 2 million new subscribers within the first month.

A further challenge to building an inclusive digital economy is providing baselines about the fundamental level of digital connectivity that individuals need to access the online space. The core of this challenge lies in identifying such baselines and adopting a flexible approach to update them as necessary in light of technology changes. In addition, it is essential to identify and address risk factors that affect the ability of vulnerable and marginalized groups to access connectivity.

The target of achieving connectivity for the 3.6 billion people currently unconnected globally is closely related to providing baselines on fundamental connectivity and affordability. National governments and communities, with the support of multi-stakeholder coalitions, can engage several policies to tackle connectivity needs, such as regulations aimed at creating an enabling environment for smaller-scale providers by adopting practices to facilitate license exemptions or tax incentive schemes.


Report of the Secretary-General Roadmap for Digital Cooperation of June 2020

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