The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the considerable inequalities within and between countries and shown the deep divide between the digital “haves and have-nots”.
Least developed countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) lag far behind. In 2019, a mere one quarter of the population used the Internet in LLDCs, an estimated 50% in SIDS, and in LDCs, only 19% of the population have access to and use the internet. When we look at in-country access data, this divide is even more severe for rural areas and usage by women (ITU, 2018).
In short, once more the most vulnerable are left behind and cannot benefit from the opportunities digital technologies offer.
For an estimated 800 million people in LDCs left without internet access, virtual classrooms, accessing of e-government services, working remotely, conducting business online, and communicating with colleagues, friends, and families, – which has become a routine for most people in developed and advanced developing countries during the pandemic – is a faraway dream!
To achieve the 2025 targets and 2030 SDGs, the Broadband Commission and the international community must increase their focus on ensuring digital inclusion for the people of the LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS. We need to accelerate action to create comprehensive digital ecosystems in those countries
I recommend accelerated investment in broadband and energy infrastructure, particularly in hard-to-reach and remote areas in LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS, which may require satellite broadband as an available alternative.
Second, promoting a competitive market for operators offering a variety of plans that cater to different income levels, and thereby addressing the high costs of internet access and usage.
In areas or communities where the provision of broadband services is economically unviable for commercial operators, there may be a need to use universal service funds to bring the costs to affordable levels.
And finally, it is required to invest much more in developing digital literacy and skills, development of local content available in local languages, and this would go hand-in-hand with increased school enrollment and targeted programs for those out-of-school.
It is indisputable that in the 21st century access to and literacy in the use of the Internet is an essential skill and public service. Let us focus our efforts on digitally including the people in LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS, to achieve the 2025 targets and the 2030 SDGs.