How "dig once" can democratize digital connectivity

Digital connectivity; digital divide; dig once policies; phone, colours

Boosting digital connectivity will require governments, citizens, utilities and internet service providers to collaborate on dig once policies. Image: Unsplash / @frostroomhead

Corey Glickman
Advisor, Cradle 2 Commerce Program, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
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Digital Communications

  • Reliable access to digital services should not be viewed as a privilege, but a necessity for social and economic well-being.
  • Boosting digital connectivity requires governments, citizens, utilities and internet service providers to collaborate on a “dig once” policy.
  • The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance has convened workshops with 17 cities worldwide to investigate pain points and gaps in the World Economic Forum’s Dig Once policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a persistent digital divide and showed its many consequences. As the world locked down, half the population lacked internet service. People were unable to locate COVID-19 testing sites or other critical resources, monitor the local state of the pandemic, purchase many necessities, or even check in with family.

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Digital connectivity was also crucial when work shifted to the home and school moved online. These effects compounded the long-standing consquences for those who lack internet service, such as fewer job opportunities and difficulty accessing social services. Reliable access to technologies like cellular service and Wi-Fi is a necessity for social and economic well-being, not a privilege.

Building an ecosystem of stakeholders

Many governments understand the need for better and broader digital connectivity. But this requires expensive, disruptive work — mainly installing new cables and telecom equipment under roads and around other critical infrastructure. The potential cost of the digital infrastructure rollout is massive. It has been estimated that deployment of fiber for 90% of U.S. households could cost $70 billion.

Private internet providers want to expand their customer base but must balance these new revenue streams with often enormous construction and infrastructure costs. Meanwhile, government-provided service is limited by the finite pool of tax dollars that is divided among countless critical needs.

Solutions to these complex problems require an ecosystem of willing and united stakeholders (governments, citizens, utilities, internet service providers). Governments have started to develop and implement “dig once” policies that coordinate these stakeholders and ensure the installation of telecommunications conduits that facilitate connectivity. These efforts reduce the risks to public safety and property, and ease the traffic disruption caused by multiple excavations. Cost savings from a dig once policy are also estimated to be as much as 33%.

A dig once approach can accelerate the distribution of digital infrastructure to provide individuals and entire economies with new opportunities. But those outcomes will only happen if governments can effectively coordinate stakeholders and ensure the installation of conduits that futureproof connectivity.

"Solutions to these complex problems require an ecosystem of willing and united stakeholders."

Corey Glickman, Infosys

Barriers to dig once strategies

Despite the commonsense appeal, the adoption of these policies lags for a variety of reasons. The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance has convened workshops with 17 cities worldwide to investigate pain points and gaps in the World Economic Forum’s Dig Once policy and to identify next steps that could accelerate adoption. The Alliance approached Infosys to help lead design thinking workshops with pioneer cities from every region.

Map showing the 17 pioneer cities involved in design thinking workshops about dig once policies.
The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance convened workshops with 17 cities worldwide, lead by Infosys, to investigate pain points and gaps in the World Economic Forum’s Dig Once policy. Image: Infosys Knowledge Institute

The pioneer cities represent different geographies, cultures, and levels of development, by design. These differences affect how the model Dig Once policy will be adopted and what challenges cities might face.

In Latin America, a lack of transparency in planning and coordination across poorer citizen groups is often a barrier. On the other hand, European counterparts may struggle with a lack of coordination among city authorities, operators, and service providers. As a result, the design thinking workshops organized the participants based on their similar needs and challenges.

These workshops uncovered the main factors holding back dig once policy adoption and, therefore, the three most pressing needs in this area:

1) Greater coordination among different authorities, operators, and service providers

Coordination among stakeholders — particularly those in the private sector — is a major challenge to the expansion of digital connectivity, according to each group of pioneer cities. Companies have reacted positively to dig once policies, but some are not ready to give competitors easy access to their robust fiber connections. In some cases, pro-dig once legislation has stalled indefinitely due to business objections.

2) Creation of case studies and open communication between similar cities

Regardless of region, cities want to learn how to roll out digital connectivity together. The desire for best practices and case studies was nearly universal across the pioneer cities. Governments can learn from cities like London where providers are encouraged to collaborate on projects. This offsets the costs of road closures and permits. Right now there is no clearinghouse that captures these examples.

3) Wider availability of geographic information system (GIS) data

In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Open GIS data is another requirement for effective dig once policies because proprietary data prevents collaboration and causes cascading delays. When operators don’t have a complete view of where utility lines, fiber wires and conduits are located, they can’t start work. Such delays extend beyond operators to the citizens that use the roads and services being affected by the work.

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Overcoming dig once barriers

Cities need to develop a governance model that defines the role of each stakeholder and the processes they follow under a dig once policy. This should address funding of digital infrastructure projects, sharing of data, disruptions caused by government transitions and alignment of stakeholder participation.

Although cities have different needs and challenges, the basic dig once structure is universal. Case studies on governance models, templates for rollout plans and advice on how to manage permits can be retooled to support different cities. The London example shows how governments can incentivize providers to collaborate on infrastructure.

Even if the above recommendations are met, the work isn’t done. As cities embark on their own dig once journeys and adopt these recommendations, they need to report back and share their successes and failures – creating a virtuous cycle of learning.

The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance and the World Economic Forum can serve as the hub to connect cities and their dig once efforts. This hub can be the platform for cities to share lessons, successes and failures, and facilitate collaboration among similar cities.

The solutions to closing the digital divide are challenging but the stakes are too high to ignore.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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