Emerging Technologies

How can we bring 2.6 billion people online to bridge the digital divide?

Laptops on a desk, illustrating the digital divide

A lot of work is required to bridge the digital divide. Image: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

Hans Vestberg
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Verizon Communications
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have internet access.
  • Preventing people from being left behind in the first place is more effective, and easier, than trying to catch them up later.
  • There is a moral and a business benefit to building an inclusive internet.

During the last few years, the world has reduced the digital divide quite a lot, but we still have 2.6 billion people around the world without internet access. Today, being digitally connected is necessary to be part of our society and obtain crucial services, such as remote education, digital healthcare, online banking and a growing list of applications that connect people to each other and the digital economy. For more than two decades, I have been committed to closing the digital divide and finding ways to ensure that new technologies and services reach more people and inspire new types of collaborations to further extend that reach.

In my career, which has taken me around the world, I have spent a lot of time listening and learning about the barriers that keep people from connecting. Through that work, I’ve identified affordability, accessibility and usability as the three factors that have to be addressed to close the digital divide and help more people participate in the digital economy. Through the EDISON Alliance, a multi-stakeholder partnership between industry, governments and the World Economic Forum that was built to address and prioritize global digital equity, Verizon and its partners are collaborating to address all three. One area that we can work on together to move the world forward is inclusive design.

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EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

Building inclusivity into design

I hope that leaders in technology and telecommunications will integrate inclusivity into their product designs from the very start, so that life-improving technologies reach more people, more quickly. Preventing people from being left behind in the first place is more effective, and easier, than trying to catch them up later. The challenge of building a more inclusive future for everybody is one that I hope World Economic Forum participants will work to address as fundamental parts of their business and governance strategies.

A good example of inclusive innovation is Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) for the internet. FWA uses radio waves to send high-speed signals that offer data transfer to and from devices and, when paired with 5G technology, offers ultra-high speeds, low latency and massive capacity. FWA can reach users who may not have physical access to a broadband network and it creates choices for communities that were previously served by only one or two service providers. It’s easy to install and activate, often without a technician.

Our customers have taken to it enthusiastically: we had 2.7 million FWA subscribers at the end of Q3 2023. This is Verizon’s experience in the US. GSMA counts nearly 100 operators offering FWA worldwide in developed and developing markets.

FWA expansion helps close the digital divide

digital divide
Fixed wireless access subscribers, North America, 2020-2028 Image: OMDIA

Satellite internet providers also offer inclusive alternatives, especially for mobile users, since satellite internet can connect geographies that don’t have a physical connection to high-speed internet. Last summer, GSMA partnered with the European Space Agency to encourage innovation in the use of communications satellites to reach more people.

Through fibre, radio and satellite, 95% of the world’s population lives within access of the internet, but the digital divide remains and we must now work on the affordability and usability of these technologies to bridge it.

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How we can bridge the gap

We can address this through a combination of education, pricing and subsidy programmes and product design. In the education space, digital upskilling is critical around the worldwide. We’ve seen firsthand the role that overcoming obstacles to usability plays in narrowing the inclusion gap, which has an impact on people’s ability to do things, such as manage finances, open businesses, go to school and receive essential healthcare. For example, our Verizon Innovative Learning programme in public schools and Small Business Digital Ready events for entrepreneurs are helping close existing gaps through education throughout the US.

"For example, our Verizon Innovative Learning programme in public schools and Small Business Digital Ready events for entrepreneurs are helping close existing gaps through education throughout the U.S."

On affordability, products and services should be priced appropriately, which will have a different meaning for every company. At Verizon, we offer tiered services, so people can pay only for what they need and within their budgets. Depending on where in the world you do business, you can also partner with government subsidy programmes, such as the Affordable Connectivity Plan we have in the U.S. Combined with such efforts, inclusive design can help people adopt new technologies more quickly.

Analysts at Gartner believe that artificial intelligence has a critical role to play here too and that AI-powered scanning tools will soon be able to detect accessibility quickly and accurately, so that developers will know whether all people, from all cultures and backgrounds, can use their services.

Solutions differ by country and community. At the EDISON Alliance, we stress local actions that can have a global impact. The EDISON Alliance Lighthouse Countries Network has already brought together the governments of Bahrain, Bangladesh, Honduras, Rwanda, Togo and the United Arab Emirates to work with private industry and civil society to maximize the digital potential of each nation. The earlier these engagements start, the more local communities thrive.

There is a business benefit to internet access for all

Building an inclusive internet is reason enough to do this, but there is a clear business benefit as well. Technology and telecommunications businesses can accelerate their sales by designing accessible products and services from the start. Networks function best and have the greatest potential when they are widely adopted, bringing the most possible people onto the internet has clear benefits for the network itself. Meanwhile, there is increasing commercial pressure to provide accessible solutions, as major enterprise contracts now routinely require digital accessibility to be addressed in project design.

Inclusive design is the right thing to do and the right way to do business. However you choose to tackle the challenge, the reward for success is creating larger, more sustainable and resilient markets that serve people in need, wherever they were born or wherever they live. At Verizon, we are always preparing for what's next. We are building a company that will empower and connect the world and that means reaching everybody. Inclusive design thinking is another step we can all take together towards finally ending the digital divide that has isolated billions of people from the opportunity to choose when and where to participate in the digital economy.

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