How can we achieve universal internet access?

Ken Hu
Deputy Chairman, Huawei Technologies
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As a frequent public speaker, I often talk about the exciting changes that information and communications technology (ICT) will have on our world – the better connected world that we envision for the near future.

Yet four billion people still lack internet access. Although mobile phones are nearly universal, only about 12% of the people in emerging economies have a broadband data connection.

Most unconnected people live in countries with underdeveloped economies and poor digital infrastructure. Yet tremendous growth potential could be unlocked by improving connectivity. With the right ICT, and policies that support innovation and fair competition, countries can help connect the world’s unconnected populations and narrow the digital divide.

The primary focus should be on developing broadband infrastructure with wider coverage and faster speeds. Countries must view broadband as critical national infrastructure that supports economic growth and raises living standards.

One effective way to create this infrastructure is through Public-Private Partnerships, or PPPs. Successful examples can be seen in countries such as Malaysia, where regulators built a framework that ensured competition and equal access, lowered the cost of digital entry for citizens, and fostered innovation and competition among service providers.

As networks are being rolled out, telecoms operators should keep costs low by sharing optical fiber and infrastructure with power companies and other utilities. Burying fiber optic cables and conduits underground typically represents 30% to 40% of total deployment cost, and can run as high as 70%. These high costs ultimately make internet access more expensive to end users.

Regulators should also adopt new mechanisms for allocating radio spectrum in a way that increases supply while reducing cost. This is urgent, since most countries will need to increase their available spectrum by anywhere from 50% to 100% over the next five years. That’s the rough timeline for commercial roll-out of fifth-generation mobile technology, or 5G, which will usher in a host of new digital services and business models. Spectrum is the basis for ultra high-speed mobile broadband, so it’s a vital part of digital infrastructure. But it can account for up to 20% of the cost of a broadband connection – again, driving up access costs for the end user.

Another step toward closing the digital gap is the development of application software. In developing countries, apps drive demand for connectivity and create new business models. M-Pesa in Kenya lets people with no bank account send and receive money through their mobile phones. M-KOPA, also in Kenya, helps households with no electricity purchase their own solar power systems by making daily micro-payments via cell phone. In China, WeChat lets people do everything from buying movie tickets to having food delivered to their homes.

When it comes to application development, the government’s main role is to ensure a level playing field that allows entrepreneurial companies to devise innovative new solutions without fear of either monopolistic competitors or excessive regulation. A laissez-faire approach gives entrepreneurs the freedom to create apps that benefit local users.

Technology providers such as Huawei must design inexpensive yet advanced smartphones suited to the needs of developing markets. We should be able to do this more quickly than in the past. For example, it took 10 years for third-generation mobile technology to reach half the world’s population, whereas fourth-generation technology reached that point in just seven years.

Connecting the unconnected is a problem with no single solution. As such, it requires governments, operators, equipment vendors, and app developers to work together. The top priority is to build digital infrastructure, which serves as the basis for nearly all innovation in the digital realm.

Technological innovation, infrastructure sharing and apps that improve people’s lives are necessary steps on the road to digital inclusion. Together, they will help bring about the connectivity that delivers prosperity and growth in the years ahead.

Have you read?
How Africa can benefit from growing internet capacity
What can the internet do for sustainable development?
3 numbers that explain the digital divide

Author: Ken Hu, Deputy Chairman and Rotating CEO at Huawei Technologies  

Image: Men smoke and use their mobile phones as they sit at a small cafe in Siwa, November 22, 2014. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

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