As the ICT sector matures, technological developments, policies, and innovations have brought faster, cheaper and more widespread access to internet connectivity. This progress certainly contributes to economic development and prosperity, but it also carries new risks and inequalities, particularly because urban areas tend to benefit from these advancements more than rural areas do. Today, rural internet penetration across emerging markets remains low, mainly due to the significant capital expenditure required to connect these areas, with little or no commercial business case to justify investments.
Ángel Gurría, the Secretary General of the OECD, recently presented at a conference, where he suggested that many are being left behind in this “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Gurría explained, “half of the world’s population still does not have access to the Internet. The majority does not have access to the fastest broadband, which exacerbates inequalities… Women are 40% less likely than men to have ever used the Internet… and most people do not have the necessary skills to thrive in the digital world.”
Bridging the digital gap in order to connect underserved or commercially unviable areas will require participation from a diverse set of actors. Having worked with both public and private sector stakeholders to design business models to optimize connectivity, HIP Consult has found that while many governments have made strides with universal access funds, ubiquitous connectivity will remain out of reach without greater participation from the private sector.
Stakeholder Collaboration in Peru
Enrique Medina, Chief Policy Officer at Telefonica, recognizes that while connectivity is considered a fundamental right, it poses a challenge for operators where there is no business case. The “Internet para Todos” initiative led by IADB Invest, CAF, Facebook, and Telefónica, aims to connect rural areas in Peru, where more than 6 million people do not have high-speed mobile internet (half of whom have no coverage at all).
To date, the partnership has connected more than 1,900 locations with 3G/4G technology, benefitting more than 600,000 Peruvians. Multi-actor partnerships like Internet para Todos are an example of a successful strategic response to the financial constraints of rural connectivity.
Orange in Africa: Investing in Expanding Market Reach
Milena Harito Shteto, the former Minister of Albania and currently Orange’s representative to the GSMA, delivered an address on the importance of connecting the unconnected. She noted that among the 4 billion people globally without internet access, only 800 million are not covered by networks. This indicates an opportunity to bring the remaining 3.2 billion people into the digital economy leveraging existing infrastructure.
Orange, which operates in 28 African countries, recently launched a phone with internet access for $20 USD; in villages with no power they are installing solar energy systems which could allow people to charge their phones. Projects like this one may not be required of operators, or even exist within traditional business models. However, to facilitate connectivity and affordability, such programs are essential to finding new ways to innovate and deliver affordable solutions.
Project Connect & InfraNav: Leveraging Data for Decision-Making
Another innovative approach to connecting rural communities is to better prioritize locations based on the nearest point of connectivity, population density, and cost of deployment. UNICEF’s Project Connect is working to map the connectivity of schools to help better understand and identify important network investments within the context of rural education. HIP Consult’s data visualization and analytics platform, InfraNav, is also mapping digital infrastructure assets to optimize broadband deployments and determine where public or universal access funds make sense versus co-builds or commercially viable networks.
We can promote the digital inclusion of rural populations using many different approaches, but the effort will require collaboration – whether in terms of financing, regulation or openness to sharing data to better understand un/underserved markets. To speak with one of our experts about broadband or other digital infrastructure partnership models and/or funding mechanisms, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.