During the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has provided solutions to many of our current problems. As the pandemic prevented us from meeting in person, schools and businesses took to the internet for a new way of working together. Shockingly, as almost half of the world lacks access to the internet, COVID-19 also amplified the digital gap.
The Digital Gap
According to a recent United Nations International Children’s Fund – International Telecommunications Union (UNICEF-ITU) report, two-thirds of the world’s school-aged children do not have internet access at home. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of children are still relying on online learning due to the pandemic, and lack of internet access prevents these children from receiving an education.
The digital gap further highlights class divides. Rural and lower-income students struggle more than urban and students from higher-income households. Fifty-eight percent of school-aged children from the richest households have internet access at home, while only 16% of the poorest students have access. This means that the education of 1.3 billion children education is at risk.
Additionally, the majority of those without internet access are in the poorest countries. These are also the countries where access to information on COVID-19 may be most important. According to the World Bank, 85% of Africans live on less than $5.50 a day. In Africa, one gigabyte of data costs nearly 8% of the average income. For reference, one gigabyte is enough data to stream a standard definition film for one hour.
During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 crisis reinforces social inequality for those with insecure jobs and jobs in public settings. It also amplifies the gap between those living in packed housing communities and those with no health insurance. In turn, the digital gap worsens the effects of COVID-19. Without internet access, people are unable to find current and vital information on the disease and how to handle it. Those without access are also prevented from communicating with others about the pandemic. The pandemic most heavily affects the elderly, unemployed and uneducated who are the groups who use the internet the least.
How to Close the Digital Gap
In order to protect children’s education and to allow poor people a better chance to compete in the modern economy, it is essential to close the digital gap. To address this issue, the world must also address the issues of global poverty and weak infrastructure.
The affordability of internet access is a major factor in the digital gap. Personal devices including laptops and smartphones are costly. Further, taxes, patent fees and electricity make them even more expensive. Financing people who cannot afford technology is one path to address this issue. Implementing tariff subsidies that lower the domestic price is a second possibility.
Additionally, the public needs an education about the value and resources of the internet, and the internet needs to be relevant and accessible. First, people also need to learn how to properly use it. Due to lack of relevance, people struggle to find online content, services or applications in their primary language. In rural and poor areas, many people lack the education to understand much of the content online. In a World Economic Forum meeting, Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), emphasized the importance of making technology that is inclusive.
Giga: A Program to Close the Gap
In 2019, UNICEF and ITU launched a global initiative called Giga. Giga has the goal of providing every school and its surrounding community with access to the internet. Giga has collaborated with governments to collect data and map out over 800,000 schools in 30 countries. Using this information, Giga works with governments, industries and private sector partners to create investment cases for blended public-private funding. This public-private funding will be used to build the needed connectivity infrastructures.
The digital gap is a crisis that highlights class divisions; lack of access to sufficient technology puts people at a disadvantage. COVID-19 has amplified the gap, but it has also accelerated the digital transition because it has made collaborations to close the digital gap that much more urgent. Giga and similar global initiatives that foster public-private funding have great promise to spearhead the digital gap closure. They also have the promise to transition the world to more inclusive technology.
– Jacqueline Zembek