September 19, 2021

The human-centric approach to achieving universal connectivity

Case Study By

Mr. Paul Mitchell

Former Commissioner, Senior Director, Technology Policy, Microsoft

State of Broadband 2021

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the importance of broadband connectivity for everyday life, and the continuing digital inequity that exists today.  Those with connectivity and the skills to use it have been able to adapt, continue school and work, communicate with friends and relatives, shop, and be entertained. But, for those not connected, it has been exponentially more difficult.
  

Addressing the inequities is critical to advancing global development priorities.  Through the Microsoft Airband Initiative, we partner with internet service providers, telecom equipment makers, nonprofits, and local entrepreneurs to advance digital equity—access to affordable internet, affordable devices, and the digital skills to use them—as necessary for empowerment and digital transformation across the world. We’ve learned that this will require thoughtful, tailored approaches appropriate to local conditions, that there is no one-size-fits-all, and that programs and policies should consider the end-user’s perspective, whether urban or rural digitally literate or not.

Microsoft encourages a human-centric approach[1] to ensuring that global broadband is robust, ubiquitous, evolving, and affordable, with a particular focus on the unserved and the underserved.  We recommend that stakeholders and policy makers prioritize three pillars:  

Internet Adoption: Measure the breadth and equity of internet usage and ensure all people have the devices, skills, and tools needed to reliably access basic human services, healthcare, economic development opportunities and education. More work remains to be done to have a fuller understanding of how and where to allocate, resources. The international community needs more data on where connectivity gaps are greatest, the populations most impacted by a lack of connection, and those at greatest risk of being left behind.  

Affordable technology: Ensure access to affordable infrastructure by taking a technology agnostic approach—lowering cost while not sacrificing utility.  Technology investments needed to achieve connectivity must incorporate the most cost-efficient technologies and consider alternative approaches when necessary and available, including Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, shared spectrum, fixed Wireless/Wi-Fi, and fiber. ITU’s Last-Mile Internet Connectivity Solutions Guide[2] offers a comprehensive guide to affordable alternative technologies.  

Sustainable Financing: The international community should pay particular attention to the sustainability of financing.  Technologies and business models with the lowest cost that deliver the most value, both for investors and end-users, will differ per region. The path to sustainable connectivity for all must include blended financing partnerships between the private sector, multilateral organizations, governments, and local community networks where appropriate. 

The momentum is now: stakeholders in government, industry, civil society, and international organizations have expressed renewed willingness to act—including in the April 2021 joint multistakeholder statement vowing to Leave No One Behind[3]— which has been intensified by the ongoing impacts of the COVID pandemic. At this moment, when connectivity has never been more crucial, we must take a human-centered and technology-agnostic approach to connect the unconnected now.  

[1] Microsoft. 2021. “Closing the Digital Divide: A Human-Centered Approach to Connectivity”  https://onestreamprod.blob.core.windows.net/events/unga/Human-Centered%20Connectivity_v4%5B29863%5D.pdf?sp=r&st=2021-04-26T13:07:01Z&se=2022-04-26T21:07:01Z&spr=https&sv=2020-02-10&sr=b&sig=2KWfIu7En7aeZ2wIvmfEqqC5gBb29FG1XYFuBl%2FL%2FVQ%3D

[2]  ITU. 2020. “The Last-mile Internet Connectivity Solutions Guide.” https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Technology/Pages/LMC/LMC-Home.aspx 

[3] World Wide Web Foundation. 2021. “Leave No One Behind: A People-Centered Approach to Achieve Meaningful Connectivity.” https://webfoundation.org/2021/04/leave-no-one-behind-a-people-centered-approach-to-achieve-meaningful-connectivity/