Bridging the Digital Divide

Anjali Sharma | November 30, 2022

The internet has become a pervasive and fundamental part of daily life. And while more and more people contemplate a detox from digital excess, ​​​​an estimated 37% of the world’s population — some 2.9 billion people — still live offline. These digitally disadvantaged are unable to reap the benefits of the transformative power of information and communication technologies.

The internet has become a pervasive and fundamental part of daily life. And while more and more people contemplate a detox from digital excess, ​​​​an estimated 37% of the world’s population — some 2.9 billion people — still live offline. These digitally disadvantaged are unable to reap the benefits of the transformative power of information and communication technologies.

Although the pandemic amplified a strong global growth in internet use, the ability for people to plug into digital products and services remains profoundly unequal — across and inside countries, genders, ethnicities, and socio-economic strata.

Billions of people around the world still have no connectivity at all. In addition, many hundreds of millions more struggle with access that is too slow, too costly, and too unreliable to have made a meaningful difference to their lives.

Two billion people still lack access to healthcare, 1.7 billion remain unbanked and 265 million children have no access to education. Enhancing digitally-enabled access for this enormous unserved population will help ensure they are not left behind in an increasingly digital-first world. The need for digital connectivity has never been more clear, nor more urgent.

The pandemic illustrated how critical digital infrastructure can be for linking communities to other essential services, such as healthcare and education, as well as the rising importance of data security and sovereignty. Policymakers around the world also see how access to high-quality digital infrastructure can boost economic growth.

Nonetheless, we will experience more technological progress and internet adoption in the coming decade than we did in the preceding 100 years put together, and here’s why:

  • a. User centric digital identities will ensure universal authentication and validation of an individual’s identity, while protecting privacy and security of information;
  • b. Trust architectures will enable transparent and secure digital transactions through authorised use of data and mechanisms for obtaining users’ authorization and consent through the use of distributed ledgers such as blockchain.
  • c. Payments interoperability will ensure systems for clearing and settlement of payments between users are interoperable, for seamless domestic and cross-border transactions;
  • d. Data ownership and exchange will allow users to make their data accessible to third parties for the benefit of the users, such as for payments, financial planning, etc.

Strong foundational digital infrastructures — systems that allow different users and different digital devices to seamlessly interact with one another — are critical for more pervasive and inclusive digitalisation across societies.

What does this mean for the offline world?

“If you do not use a computer or have access to the internet, you’ve become a non-person in society”. What does this mean for the digitally disadvantaged?

It can mean paying more for essentials, financial exclusion, an increased risk of experiencing poverty. People who are digitally excluded also lack a voice and visibility in the modern world, as government services and democracy increasingly move online. This can create additional layers of social exclusion and exacerbate social and economic problems.

Accessing online services: Socially excluded groups tend to be the heaviest users of many government services, yet they are also less likely to be able to use online channels to access them.

Health and wellbeing: People living in remote geographies tend to have a lower life expectancy and be at higher risk of poor health. Patients whose access to remote services may be impacted by digital literacy, disability, language, location or internet connection are most likely to experience health inequalities.

Data poverty and services: People who are already online struggle to afford their internet bill. In some cases, people online don’t know how to pay their internet bill. Even when people have access to these things, they may not have the skills to enable them to access vital services and support. They’re locked out of vital services like online food shopping and banking. Many can’t get access to centralised government information meaning physical safety is a concern too.

Jobs and money: Digital and financial inclusion are inextricably linked — those who are unable to get online independently, cannot access online banking services and tools. Digital skills are vital to being successful in today’s job market — both when looking for work and progressing in the workplace. A financially inclusive society ensures those who are in work are able to manage their wages and those out of work are able to effectively find new work.

Digital skills and safety: Communicating, handling information, content and transacting safely online are critical experiences to create favour with digital adoption. Online safety is central to what being ‘digitally included’ means. It is especially important for people who are new or limited users of the internet, often older people, and working-age adults with low educational and income attainment and those in vulnerable situations.

The digital divide doesn’t just mean having access to WiFi, it’s also linked to the ability to pay for it. Our communities who live on a low income or social security benefits are unable to pay for this access. Paying for hardware such as computers and devices is expensive. Another hurdle is that people who lack digital skills may not have the opportunity to access support to help them use technology.

The importance of digital hooks

The best way to help digitally-disadvantaged populations come online is to understand in great detail the skills, needs, motivations and spending behaviours of this demographic. People need a “hook”, like a hobby or specific need to get started on their digital journey.

Technology companies in various emerging markets are already shaping this online journey across agriculture, education, skill development, healthcare, insurance, jobs, finance, banking, mobility and payment sectors.

As organisations build out the online tools and infrastructure needed for our new digital era, there’s no doubt that internet connectivity for underserved communities remains an important issue. Ironically, although we’ve seen how mobile internet and broadband networks cover almost 94% of the world’s population, 3.4 billion people are still not using mobile internet even though they technically could — an issue termed the “usage gap” — according to the “Mobile Internet Connectivity 2021” report by the GSMA.

Together governments and businesses must begin to deliver on a whole host of other aspects that will help translate internet availability into tangible social and economic benefits.

Going forward, the digital divide will not be predominantly due to coverage or connectivity gaps, but rather a usage gap fueled by:

  • Poverty: Although extreme poverty has been steadily declining at unprecedented rates, the setbacks of the confluence of the pandemic along with disproportionate impact of conflict and climate continue to make mobile internet use an unaffordable luxury.
  • lliteracy: because of which a significant percentage of the worldwide population cannot use a text-based internet.
  • Safety concerns: Well-founded concerns about digital safety and cybercrime can keep many potential users from logging on.
  • Linguistic Exclusion: Of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages, only a small percentage have any presence on the internet.
  • Lack of relevant information: As user-generated content is a main driver of internet use, diverse linguistic and demographic groups need to have the chance to develop via the network effect. Until more users receive the tools and resources to publish content pertinent to their communities, much of the world’s population could find the internet irrelevant.
  • Lack of relevant functionality: The internet’s other main driver is online commerce. Introducing internet access to allow for passive experience is a small step toward universalizing this. Allowing users to purchase online, with all the complexity of global payments and delivery logistics, is an additional giant step.

Digital cooperation and partnerships for digital inclusion

Rapid technological change without an inclusive and sustainable development strategic orientation risks entrenching existing inequalities while introducing new ones. Shaping a shared vision on digital cooperation and a digital future must become a priority. Given the unprecedented extent to which our world relies on digital tools for prosperity and connectivity, only a shared vision for a safe, open and free digital world can unlock the full potential of technology and address concerns over digital trust and security.

To close the digital divide, there is a need to ensure that every person has affordable access to the Internet. This requires that governments promote universal access to ICT infrastructure, address affordability, enhance digital skills and literacy, and improve the relevance and awareness of the benefits of being online. The digital inclusion of disadvantaged and marginalized groups including, women, older persons, persons with disabilities, people on the move, and indigenous peoples, also requires targeted and multifaceted measures. While digital inclusion alone is not a ‘silver bullet’ in the fight against poverty and inequality, it has become a fundamental component of promoting social inclusion.

At Bettamint we envision a world in which all individuals and communities have the digital tools needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. We believe that everyone should have equal access to income opportunities, financial services and be supported to develop basic financial skills, helping them to better manage their finances, regardless of income, age or circumstance.

Skilling, job creation programmes and digital wage payment infrastructures will need to go hand in hand so that more people can benefit from the tremendous opportunities presented in the internet economy.

As wage payments move online, marketplaces like Bettamint will be strategically positioned to service the downstream needs of underserved groups like casual temporary workers, unlocking new business models, markets and opportunities. This will eventually help build immersive e-commerce experiences that are necessary and affordable to this new generation of consumers moving online. As needs based services for these users migrate online, the inherent value of the internet expands and sets in motion a flywheel of digital adoption.

Achieving digital inclusion is about more than infrastructure — it is about the necessary collaboration and investment across different industries, governments and civil society to bring affordable, safe and meaningful services to people everywhere to help create new pathways for economic prosperity.