Drawing from the analysis carried out in the previous chapters, this chapter examines approaches that can be taken to address the various digital gaps (demand and supply side) highlighted by the pandemic.
Specific categories of people lag the overall population in use and application of digital technologies. These groups include women and girls, people with disabilities, older persons, those with low incomes and people living in remote areas. People with one or more vulnerabilities are at even greater risk of digital exclusion (e.g. low-income women, seniors with disabilities, etc.). The list is not exhaustive as there are other groups at risk of digital inclusion that are often country specific (e.g. migrants, refugees (Box 3.1), ethnic minorities, etc.). Each country needs to identify which underrepresented groups are at risk of digital exclusion to target their support policies.
Connecting Ukrainian refugees
To provide access to all, including those in hard-to-reach areas as well as refugee camps, it is necessary to leverage and include all technologies. Satellite technology, for example, has been widely used to reach those in hard-to-reach areas as well as in refugee camps since it can be quickly deployed no matter how remote or hard-to reach the location is.
Very high throughput geostationary satellites (VHTS)
In those areas, where deploying terrestrial infrastructure is costly and time consuming, new generation of very high throughput geostationary satellites (VHTS), by employing frequency re-use as well as spot beam solutions offer output potential which is order of magnitude higher than that of previous generations of GEO satellites. Electric propulsion and software-defined flexibility extends lifecycles and responsiveness to changing customer needs. In recent years traditional GEO satellite providers have increasingly teamed up with new entrants in LEO and MEO as well as traditional terrestrial telecom providers to combine technologies in order to serve customers in different areas of coverage.
Although traditional global telecommunications infrastructure will continue to have far more capacity (2 000 terabits per second (Tbps) than projected space-based infrastructure capacity (estimated at 50 Tbps by 2026). Space-based infrastructure currently complements terrestrial networks by “backhauling” (moving data between “access” networks, to include users’ devices, and the “core” or “backbone” network where substantive computing happens) for terrestrial network service providers. Satellite capacity will likely steadily increase as multiple large constellations are launched, and data-relay efficiency and satellite-based data processing improve.
Satellite telecommunications remains either the most effective or the only technology capable of delivering connectivity to mobile objects such as commercial aviation, maritime or land transportation in area of low terrestrial penetration.
Access to the Internet is beyond the affordability of many people in LMICs. Nevertheless, there are a number of steps that can be taken to make data more affordable. Community centres and schools could be provided with unlimited broadband access for those who cannot afford it at home. During COVID-19, telecommunication operators in many countries raised data allowances, provided free Wi-Fi or made access to educational and health sites unmetered; this should be retained in some form at least for the poorest, students and those needing medical consultations. This can be achieved by adopting policies and regulations that create an enabling environment for further investments and operational efficiencies for mobile operators and other service providers. Governments could also consider subsidizing data use for the poorest through social tariffs similar to those for food allowances or by partnering with mobile operators to zero rate certain services such as e-government, education and health sites. Another innovative scheme is charitable data donations where users donate their unused monthly data to those in need.
The price of devices, particularly smartphones, remain a barrier to access. As described in Box 2.2, the Broadband Commission Working Group on Smartphone Access is examining the opportunities and barriers to smartphone access and test the success and impact of different interventions in order to make clear recommendations to policy-makers, industry and international organizations to increase access to smartphones. Vodafone Group has committed to launching two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.
Newer 5G devices may be costlier than 4G ones for LMICs, meaning that initial end users of 5G in these countries may be limited to the wealthier segment of the population and to B2B (business-to-business)verticals. The affordability and connectivity gap may worsen in these countries without focus on addressing the access and device affordability challenges that have been identified in this report. Each country will have to decide, based on its national priorities, the policy tradeoffs of investing in expansion of coverage of existing broadband technologies (e.g. 4G) vs investing in new technologies such as 5G.
Governments wishing to reduce the cost of broadband access can resort to a variety of measures, from incentives for low-cost services through regulatory approvals, to negotiating public-private partnerships balancing investment incentives for network deployment. Governments may also consider reducing taxes or subsidizing access to free or low-priced devices, as well as free connection in public administration facilities such as libraries, hospitals, or schools or at other public hot spots. Measures to ensure affordable access to universal meaningful connectivity will ideally form part of more comprehensive broadband strategies.
Cross-sectoral collaborative approaches in the aftermath of the pandemic
COVID-19 provided a sharp illustration of limitations of the online economy in many LMICs. Many struggled due to a lack of online retail platforms for goods and services and ability to make digital payments. This is a reflection of a wider digital malaise in some countries where governments have struggled to diversify and digitize their economies including by adopting digitalization in a meaningful way. One reason is the ICT sector has often been stuck in a silo with a single responsible ministry and little interaction with other sectors. Awareness and expertise about digitalization has remained limited in many sectors.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call and could accelerate digitalization across sectors of the economy similar to the SARS outbreak in China in 2003 which led to a surge in e-commerce. Now that governments are aware of how ICTs helped mitigate the economic disruption caused by COVID-19, it is an opportunity to move rapidly to spur digital adoption across all economic sectors. Another reason to accelerate digitalization is that countries with better broadband infrastructure were more successful in mitigating the economic consequences of the pandemic.