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Here's how we can work together to bridge the digital divide

There is a digital divide between the connected world, and those in low-income communities and in rural or remote areas

There is a digital divide between the connected world, and those in low-income communities and in rural or remote areas Image: Getty Images

Aongus Hegarty
President, International Markets, Dell Technologies
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Tech and Innovation

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Globally, 2.7 billion people still lack access to the internet.
  • The United Nations International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) Project Connect has set ambitious targets for getting more people online.
  • To achieve these targets, we need innovative partnerships between business and government.

Globally, many communities are being left behind in a world where so much of life – learning, working, commerce, and healthcare – happens online. There are 2.7 billion people, or one-third of the world’s population, who remain offline today. Most are in low-income communities and in rural or remote areas with limited or no broadband service. Many will lack the skills and training to access technology and the web. These are the people who need the opportunities and economic prosperity offered by technology the most.

Over the past decade, increased collaboration between business, government, inter-governmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has narrowed the digital divide. However, the inequality gap between those with computer and internet access, and those without, is widening.

The UN has set some ambitious 2023 targets, like ensuring 65% of households worldwide have internet access
The UN has set some ambitious 2023 targets, like ensuring 100% of the global population has internet access, as well as 100% of businesses. Image: UN ITU

As the World Economic Forum first outlined in 2016, this is a “big, complex, and multidimensional” problem. But government and technology leaders can work together to reach across countries and communities. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Connect 2030 rallies global support for universal internet access. It has set some ambitious 2023 targets, like ensuring 65% of households worldwide have internet access, and 70% of people are using the web.

Positive action is being taken today to achieve those targets. One innovative alliance is Building the Europe Link with Latin America, or the BELLA Project, a consortium of Latin American and European networks building a transatlantic digital highway between the continents via direct submarine cable.

Giga is another promising joint initiative launched by UNICEF and ITU, designed to help develop the digital infrastructure to expand internet access for schools and connect “every young person to information, opportunity, and choice.” Giga’s global effort will help provide critical broadband service for the two-thirds, or 1.3 billion, of the world’s school-age children who have no internet connection in their homes.

Giga is promising joint initiative launched by UNICEF and ITU, designed to expand internet access for schools
Giga is a promising joint initiative launched by UNICEF and ITU, designed to expand internet access for schools. Image: Giga

To give governments and partners visibility of all the world’s schools and to map which schools have internet access and which are lacking, Giga created Project Connect. In collaboration with Dell Technologies, Project Connect has developed a real-time tracking tool to show where resources are needed, and progress is underway. The live mapping data platform uses satellite imagery, artificial intelligence (AI), and telemetry data to map the locations and internet access status of all schools around the globe.

Project Connect has mapped the geolocations of 2.1 million schools out of an estimated six million worldwide. The project has also mapped the connectivity status of 332,000 schools and determined that roughly half of those schools are still without internet access – and the work continues.

Harnessing the power of technology

At Dell, we’ve set an ambitious goal to impact 1 billion people worldwide by 2030 and advance towards digital equity. We are enabling people, particularly in under-resourced locations, by giving them access to not only the technology, but the digital skills and community networks to meet their essential needs.

Digital LifeCare is among our flagship efforts. It’s a mobile, cloud-based digital platform deployed in India that gives healthcare workers an effective tool to screen, diagnose, manage, and track non-communicable diseases, a rising public health issue in the country. Developed in collaboration with the Indian government, Tata Trusts and other partners, Digital LifeCare has been adopted by 33 states and union territories across India, with more than 94,000 healthcare professionals trained on the platform, and more than 135 million people enrolled.

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Similarly, our Solar Community Hubs, in partnership with Computer Aid International, are extending technology access and all that comes with it to some of the most remote communities in the world, benefitting over 114,000 people. Today, we have hubs in 25 locations across three continents. They have been transformative, serving as central access points for technology, education, healthcare, career opportunities, and much more. In Africa, Dell partnered with the Ministry for Education and the Camara education charity to address digital literacy challenges.

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How is the World Economic Forum fostering a sustainable and inclusive digital economy?

The community manages the hubs and they are tailored to the unique needs of the people who live there. For example, in Brazil, the Solar Community Hub is mapping and tracking deforestation in the Amazon to help battle climate change. And in Bengaluru, India, our newest addition to the Solar Community Hub portfolio is a fleet of six solar-powered vans equipped with PCs and 4G connectivity, ready to be deployed to remote districts across the country.

In the US, Detroit’s Connect313 is a citywide, cross-industry effort to make Detroit a national model for digital inclusion. Dell supports its Neighborhood Technology Hubs with technology and digital skills. Additionally, we’ve joined forces with AT&T to launch their Connected Learning Centers. Together, we will have successfully launched 20 centres across 6 states each serving 24,000 people annually.

Access equals opportunity

In an increasingly digital world, access to technology and the internet means access to opportunity. That’s why business, government, NGOs and communities must work together to bridge the digital divide. From providing access to digital infrastructure and the internet to breaking down the barriers to digital skills, we can use our collective strengths to bring more people into the digital world and ensure no one gets left behind.

The opportunity to innovate, create, and unlock new economic opportunities has never been greater, thanks in part to technology and global connectivity. But for 2.7 billion people without access to our digital world, that’s not their reality today. With technology a greater equaliser of opportunity, we can work together to bridge that gap.

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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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