Closing the digital divide is key to inclusive growth

Augie K. Fabela II
Digital Member, VEON
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We often hear the phrase “connecting the next billion” as society’s next goal for inclusion and development. That may sound like a laudable goal, but it is short-sighted and a mistaken perspective. The thinking behind “connecting the next billion” reflects old and outdated assumptions about how things happen in the world today. As social and digital services are growing exponentially, the focus for the future of inclusion should be on empowering the digitally disconnected.

In the emerging digital markets, namely those countries that have just recently come online with 3G and 4G, the impact of digital inclusion will be magnified. Most new customers in those markets are joining the mobile and digital world without prior experience of earlier digital technologies. These emerging direct-to-smartphone customers will experience the digital world differently than those who became connected before them. Their experience will also be shaped by the unique social, political and economic structures that will drive new uses.

Digital inclusion will ensure economic impact, widespread talent development, and borderless distribution of entrepreneurial passion and ingenuity that will change our world. The key question is how we will connect and empower everyone.

For our part, VimpelCom will initially bring the power of digital to all of the 750 million customers in the countries in which we currently operate; we are also actively creating sustainable approaches to delivering digital empowerment beyond our emerging digital markets. To make significant progress, we need the help of other partners, notably governments and regulators, and also our fellow players in the digital space.

Among the key players in the digital world, mobile is uniquely dependent on its relationships with governments and regulators. They are the ones who provide us with spectrum. They spell out the rules for how it can and must be used, and they charge us for using it. They also set the number of licenses in each market, determining the intensity and focus of local competition. So far, governments and regulators have focused on artificially maximizing competition by issuing too many licenses, but they need to start shifting their focus more towards inclusion and economic development and helping operators optimize their coverage and infrastructure to maximize inclusion.

Just as Facebook and Snapchat were spawned from the American university experience and Alibaba emerged from China, I believe the new emerging digital markets have the potential for generating some real blockbusters. Their power will be unleashed through digital empowerment and maximum inclusion, and it is our job to turn our vision into action and leadership in digitally empowering the disconnected. The measure and result of success in achieving this will be global economic development and progress.

The Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015 is taking place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September.

Author: Augie Fabela, Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus, VimpelCom, Netherlands

Image: People use computers at an internet cafe in the Hodan area of Mogadishu October 9, 2013. Reuters/Feisal Omar

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