Author: Yoonee Jeong, Asian Development Bank

Asia-Pacific is both hyper-connected and under-connected. While the region hosts leaders in 5G and fiber rollout, many developing countries are either largely offline or suffer from unaffordable and unreliable digital services. Bridging the digital divide has never been more critical than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where populations without access to broadband have suffered disproportionately and have fallen further behind in education, health and education. other socio-economic outcomes.

The success of the region’s collective digital future depends on the quality and speed with which we provide the affordable, accessible, resilient and reliable digital infrastructure necessary to build and operate an inclusive digital society. Securing an inclusive digital future for all, including the most vulnerable, is an urgent policy priority. Achieving this ambition will require rethinking how we see and deal with the digital divide.

The digital divide between and within countries has not only persisted, but is arguably widening. According to the International Telecommunication Union, nearly 40% of the population in the Asia-Pacific region was still unconnected in 2021, with non-users disproportionately concentrated in rural and isolated communities and within the female population.

There is also a big difference in internet quality between and within countries. The national average mobile broadband download speed in China (202 Mbps) was almost 12 times that of landlocked countries in the region, while the fixed broadband download speed in Thailand (109 Mbps) and Korea South (103 Mbps) was four times higher than average. across the region, according to a 2021 study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

At this rate, the region will also miss the 2025 advocacy targets set by the United Nations Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development regarding universal connectivity, affordability, skills, access, equality and sustainability. ‘use. For example, 15 developing member countries of the AfDB have not yet reached the 2% (gross national income per capita) affordability target of 1.5 GB for mobile and 5 GB for access. fixed broadband per month. When looking at the distribution of this national goal by income group, affordability remains an issue for low-income segments of the population.

Global goals have been overtaken by changing consumer demands and behavior following the pandemic-induced digital acceleration. E-learning, remote health and temporary work from home are now essential to full social and economic inclusion, and their data requirements represent a new paradigm for connectivity.

A 2021 World Bank report investigating how Indonesia’s education system can overcome losses from the COVID-19 pandemic found that traffic usage of learning apps or online teaching was generally around one gigabyte per day, well beyond the Commission’s entry-level broadband standard. According to the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2021 conference proceedings, video calls on popular platforms like Google Meet and Zoom are particularly resource-intensive and can consume up to a gigabyte of traffic in a single hour.

Looking ahead, Ericsson’s 2021 Mobility Report revealed that the global average monthly mobile data consumed per user exceeded 10 GB in 2021 and predicted that the global average usage will reach 35 GB per month in 2026. This means that current entry-level Internet standards of one to five GB per person is nowhere near enough. An ever-growing set of data well beyond current targets should be available for 2% of gross national income per capita to achieve meaningful connectivity.

Simply providing broadband coverage is not enough to meet people’s needs. The presence of Internet service at an address does not mean that the service has the quality to support video calls or data access or has the network capacity to support the applications users need to meaningful participation in the digital economy. Given the duality of digitalization – as a route out of poverty or as a tool for abuse and abuse – it is increasingly essential to ensure that digital participation leads to net positive outcomes in matter of development.

Tracking progress toward technology access and adoption is important but insufficient. Existing measures of digital progress tend to be confined in silos – mobile, digital finance, digital health and digital government – ​​despite the cross-cutting nature of digital technologies. They also tend to focus on the availability and use of services without mechanisms to measure impact.

Achieving universal access will not be easy or cheap. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that $428 billion will be needed by 2030, one-third of which must come from public sources.

While digital investment has been and will continue to be the domain of the private sector, development finance from multilateral development banks or other donors has a unique and important role to play in bridging the digital divide.

One is to help governments close the market efficiency gap by addressing market failures and optimizing regulatory and investment conditions for the private sector. In many developing countries, regulations and market interventions have not kept pace with technological progress, and licensing structures are not conducive to competition or innovation. Since private sector investments in digital connectivity require large up-front investments and a long track to recover costs, governments need to mobilize the private sector for much-needed investments and promote market-based solutions by streamlining rules and regulations. regulations and improving the business. environment.

The second is to help fill the access gap in communities deemed by the private sector to be too expensive to serve due to low population density, difficult terrain or poverty levels. Here, development finance can help governments fill the gaps through targeted measures such as smart subsidies or universal service funds.

Development funding can also encourage innovation – in technologies, business models and use cases – and help identify and demonstrate the feasibility and viability of innovative and emerging technologies serving the unconnected.

Development finance can bolster government efforts to build a digitally literate and skilled society. Lack of digital skills currently prevents many people from going online or limits the ability to make the most of digital opportunities, creating a usage gap. Low digital literacy also exposes vulnerable populations to potential threats and abuse such as cyberattacks or scams.

Collaboration between governments, the private sector and development partners is key to creating a more prosperous, inclusive, resilient and sustainable digital future. We must all do our part to achieve meaningful digital connectivity for all for a successful digital future for our region.

Yoonee Jeong is a Senior Digital Technology Specialist in the Digital Technologies for Development Unit at the Asian Development Bank.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asian Development Bank, its management, board of directors or members. The article is, in part, based on ADB’s upcoming working paper “Last Mile Connectivity: Addressing the Affordability Frontier” co-authored by Jonathan Brewer, Arndt Husar and the author.

This article appeared in the latest edition of East Asia Quarterly ForumAsia’s digital future‘, Volume 14, No. 2.