The recent advancements in information technology have proven that economic and social development depends largely on the access to information and the quality of communication channels. The unparalleled economic growth displayed by the majority of the developed countries can be attributed in part to their emphasis on investing in communication technologies (Farhadi, Ismail, & Fooladi, 2012).
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The benefits are not limited to the corporate world, with both the public sector and the individual citizens actively using the Internet to improve their productivity and the quality of life. However, the increasing access to information is uneven, with major areas in both developed and developing countries displaying noticeable gaps in access to information technology. Understandably, such a scenario creates significant barriers to high-quality education, productive business, and innovation.
The issue of limited access is multifaceted and requires a coordinated effort of several stakeholders, including the communication providers, policymakers, state and local authorities, and businesses to be addressed. Several areas can be identified as feasible for expansion of access, such as the affordability of a broadband connection, the suitability of infrastructure, and the knowledge necessary for using the technology.
Affordability as a Major Determinant of the Digital Divide
According to the data, more than 50 percent of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet (A4AI, 2017). The proportion varies depending on the country, with developing countries usually having more difficulties providing their citizens with a reliable Internet connection. The situation has prompted the United Nations’ members to address the issue by formulating the sustainable development goals, one of which specifically states the need to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet by 2020 (GlobalGoals.org, n.d.). However, at the current pace of development, meeting the goal by the deadline is unlikely. It should be emphasized that the failure to provide access on time will result in a massive loss of opportunity by at least one generation of the international community.
According to the report from the Alliance for the Affordable Internet (A4AI), a non-profit organization aiming at increasing the affordability of the broadband connection argues that the cost of Internet access is a key factor in the accessibility issue. The A4AI has put forward a specific agenda, according to which the cost of one gigabyte of mobile data should be equal or less than 2% of the average monthly income in the country (A4AI, 2017).
Since more than half of the population of the developed countries currently cannot afford the cheapest Internet access package, the suggested approach is expected to resolve the issue within the deadline set by the UN. Arguably, such a simple and one-dimensional move would not suffice for a comprehensive solution. Also, there is no definitive way of persuading Internet providers to change their pricing strategies for the sake of alignment with the UN’s sustainable development goals.
This can be addressed by collaboration with local governments either through subsidizing the services for the eligible populations or through the installation of free access points. It would also be beneficial to communicate the benefits of the improved access to broadband communication to the local businesses and non-profit organizations by outlining the educational, training, and employment benefits offered by the elimination of the gap. In this way, additional funds and other valuable resources can be secured and utilized in a unanimous effort.
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Some of the more prominent players in the field have already made moves in the identified direction. For example, Microsoft has introduced an Affordable Access Grant Fund as a part of its Affordable Access Initiative. The fund is intended to support innovative businesses and technological platforms that have the potential to improve affordability and accessibility to the Internet. The scope of the project includes renewable energy sources, diversification of the payment mechanisms, last-mile delivery, and other areas associated with the digital divide in the developing countries (Microsoft, n.d.). With more stakeholders joining forces in pursuit of affordable access to broadband, the completion of the UN’s sustainable development goal can become a reality.
Infrastructural Challenges to Enhanced Access
The existing terrestrial setting in many countries forbids a fast and cost-efficient installation of equipment necessary for broadband connectivity and requires innovative solutions for bridging the digital divide. The established methods of Internet access, such as Ethernet and MPLS, require the construction of costly structures and a major update of the existing terrestrial infrastructure (Intelsat, 2016). While such an approach is not impossible and, in some cases, displays the potential for profitability, in the long run, the slow pace of the process presents numerous risks for the providers. In one of the likely scenarios, the completion of the broadband connection will take enough time for the competitive landscape and the requirements for the service to change to the degree where the accrued expenses outweigh the possible benefits. Naturally, such a possibility discourages the providers from entering the developing markets and impedes the progress of access improvement.
The intuitive solution for the issue is the introduction of the innovative method of broadband communication that would be capable of providing access to the Internet to a large population segment at a fraction of the cost of the traditional approach. One possible solution was put forward by Intelsat – an innovative solution for global connectivity launched in 2017. The organization in question offers satellite-based communication services for enterprises and small companies.
The recent developments in the field of satellite technology have eliminated most of the drawbacks associated with the technology that originates from several decades ago – namely its high cost, inflexibility, complexity, and lack of reliability. Since its launch, the service has been successfully implemented in several regions. In Colombia, the partnership with the local Internet provider has resulted in the expansion of outreach to more than 500 remote locations across the country.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vodacom has expanded its services by more than 700 sites with the help of the technology. DETASAD, a company from Saudi Arabia, is now able to operate a modern financial transactions network compliant with global corporate standards (Intelsat, 2016). With more providers and related organizations turning towards the innovative ways of broadband delivery, it is reasonable to expect further refinement of the technology and, by extension, its increasing attractiveness for the connectivity providers.
Digital Literacy as a Measurement of Digital Divide
The current focus on the infrastructural and economic aspect of the access deficit has resulted in insufficient attention to the population’s capacity to utilize the available technology. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the fast pace of information technology development makes it difficult to conclusively measure the performance of a population and producing a meaningful evaluation.
Unlike its generalized counterpart, the field of digital literacy lacks a meaningful definition and, by extension, a robust set of performance indicators that would allow for a consistent evaluation of progress. As a result, the current efforts of the educational organizations and initiatives remain largely obscure. More importantly, the results obtained by different entities cannot be cross-compared as there is no universal standard for measuring performance (Chetty et al., 2017).
To resolve the issue, three main areas need to be addressed. First, a meaningful definition of digital literacy needs to be adopted. Second, standardized and relevant performance indicators should be identified that are measurable and consistent with the definition. Third, a multi-dimensional index should be developed based on the performance indicators, accompanied by relevant objectives. Once these requirements are met and accepted by the major players such as educational organizations and charities, it then becomes possible to obtain a quantifiable understanding of the state of literacy in a given country, region, or community.
By extension, this data would allow policymakers and education providers to adjust their resource distribution, policies, and regulations to the current state of the population’s capacity for using informational technology. In other words, the introduction of measurement would ensure sufficient flexibility of the policies and educational programs and, as a result, the compliance with the dynamic nature of the information domain. Over time, a more equalized distribution of digital literacy and greater responsiveness of educational programs to the needs of the population and the challenges introduced in the course of the developments in the IT segment would result in better utilization of the available technology, stronger demand for broadband connection, and greater involvement of stakeholders such as Internet providers.
A4AI. (2017). Affordability report. Web.
Chetty, K., Gcora, N., Josie, J., Li, W., Liu, Q., & Shenglin, B. (2017). Bridging the digital divide: Measuring digital literacy. Web.
Farhadi, M., Ismail, R., & Fooladi, M. (2012). Information and communication technology use and economic growth. PLoS One, 7(11), e48903. Web.
GlobalGoals.org. (n.d.). Industry, innovation & infrastructure. Web.
Intelsat. (2016). Broadband: Bridging the digital divide. Web.
Microsoft. (n.d.). Affordable access initiative. Web.
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