COVID-19 could widen the digital gap. Here is what is needed now.
- The COVID-19 global pandemic has led to a new reliance on digital infrastructure and connectivity.
- Now, more than ever, it is essential that governments and telecommunications providers work in unison to bridge the resulting digital gap.
In just five months, life as we know it has changed irrevocably, with widespread digital connectivity at the forefront. Global internet usage has grown by 70 percent1, the use of mobile applications has doubled, voice calls have tripled, and many video-streaming services have grown by multiples.
Still, while the pandemic highlights the significance of digital infrastructure to both business and society, it also accentuates the global digital divide. In Latin America alone, school closures have left more than 154 million children unable to transition to e-learning thanks to the lack of access to online services. And while the crisis has enabled millions to work remotely, millions more without this privilege risk falling behind their peers in more developed countries.
COVID-19 has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and created new ones. Now, more than ever, connectivity should be at the core of all priorities – from healthcare to education, government services and beyond. To close these digital gaps, new solutions are needed. Here are a few that can help in the immediate term.
Many operators have offered solutions to those that have faced financial hardship, some voluntarily and some mandated by government, through flexible payment options and the lifting of data caps. But the truth is that telecommunications providers themselves also need measures in place to ease the financial pressure on business, such as the reduction of sector-specific fiscal burdens and taxations. Governments should relax regulatory barriers and permit commercial flexibility to offer special tariffs and zero-rated access to specific services.
If implemented correctly, all these measures will allow telecommunications providers to continue to invest and roll out more infrastructure, thereby helping bridge the digital gap by ensuring consistent connectivity to all communities throughout the pandemic and beyond. The right infrastructure and connectivity will allow businesses and governments to digitalize internal processes to create more robust and resilient economies, thus keeping all parties involved connected.
Regulators need to authorize the distribution and purchase of pre-paid mobile services in essential commercial premises for the 5.7 billion top-up customers globally, allowing those customers to purchase credit, update their pre-paid balance and continuously add to services from a digital standpoint, who otherwise would not be able to purchase broadband access where usual facilities are under lockdown policies.
In the medium-term, and as we continue to navigate the crisis, it will become essential to reduce or defer the payment of sector-specific taxes, as well as fees on mobile communications, data communications services, mobile money services and international gateways to encourage digital communications and transactions for both consumers and businesses alike. This will allow providers to work to bridge, rather than increase, the digital gap, keeping communities connected as best as possible and continuously building digital highways throughout Latin America.
We will need innovative strategies to accelerate digital infrastructure roll-out and support greater digital inclusion. To accommodate the steady growth of mobile and fixed Internet traffic throughout Latin America, Millicom has doubled its network capacity to sustain a significant increase in consumption, but as a whole, the industry needs better capitalized, infrastructure-based operators, because the possibility of disruptions to the physical economy has only heightened the reliance of growing digital economies on strong operators. In February, we made a commitment to modernize our mobile networks and deploy LTE 4.5G for the first time in El Salvador, providing new digital infrastructure that will become a key enabler to give Salvadorans higher speeds in the coming months. In addition to several relief measures such as new lifeline broadband products and payment delay options, the collective partnership between governments and the telecommunications industry has never been more key.
As we continue to adapt to the “new normal” of increased digitalization, the time has come for Telecommunications providers to continue to work closely with governments and legislative bodies to develop also long-term solutions to bridge the digital gap. Last week, the Forum published “Accelerating Digital Inclusion in the New Normal,” highlighting digital strategies to increase broadband penetration and accelerate economic recovery, such as distributing unused universal services funds to stimulate digital investment in underserved regions, directing a portion of recovery packages to fund infrastructure investment in underserved areas, the digitalization of essential sectors, and facilitating the digitalization of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Some of these efforts have already taken shape. In my capacity as chair of the digital communications community of the World Economic Forum, I encouraged our industry in March to issue a governmental call to action to ensure continued, reliable connectivity. Once the Forum joined forces with The World Bank, ITU and GSMA to publish a Digital Development Action Plan, shared with regulators worldwide, we recommended a series of urgent short-term measures to relieve the congestion of networks, support access and affordability to users, and ease the financial pressure on service providers.
Still, there is more work ahead. The disruption to the physical economy has only highlighted the reliance of the growing digital economies on strong, infrastructure-based telecommunications operators. Five months into the pandemic, with the “new normal” of digital connectivity taking precedence in our daily lives, the time has come to heighten our coordinated action plan with each government to create incentivizing policy environments, unlock investments needed for future infrastructure roll-out, and most importantly, provide digital access for all people throughout Latin America and elsewhere.
Digitalizing the economy is a shared responsibility. Only through these coordinated efforts can we navigate through the crisis and truly bridge the digital divide.
Chief Executive Officer, Millicom | TIGO
Chair of the Forum’s Digital Communications Industry
1 Source (March): https://www.forbes.com/sites/markbeech/2020/03/25/covid-19-pushes-up-internet-use-70-streaming-more-than-12-first-figures-reveal/#59f40fe63104.