While the Covid-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated a worldwide trend of digital transformation, inadequate infrastructure has hampered the shift in many emerging economies, limiting their capacity to fully capitalise on the opportunities stemming from the disruption. As such, it is necessary for public and private actors to collaborate on closing the gap, as high-quality ICT infrastructure is key to enhancing economic growth. This is especially notable as each additional 10% of internet penetration in emerging economies can result in a 1.2% increase in per capita GDP growth, according to the World Economic Forum.
Indeed, the pandemic highlighted the importance of internet access. Around the world, digital solutions have become fundamental to safeguarding supply chains, maintaining public services, and ensuring continuity in business and education – making ICT infrastructure as critical as water, food and electricity. Moreover, alongside vaccines, reliable internet connectivity is an essential to the post-pandemic recovery.
Overall global internet penetration stood at 53.6% in 2019, according to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union. The disparity between the developed and developing world was substantial, at 86.6% and 47%, respectively. For least-developed countries – which include Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Myanmar and others – this figure was 19.1%. There is also regional disparity, with penetration in Europe (82.5%), the Americas (77.2%) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (72.2%) higher than in Arab countries (51.6%), Asia and the Pacific (48.8%), and Africa (28.2%).
The significant disparities in terms internet penetration – between richer and poorer countries, between regions and even within a given country – constitute a critical barrier to mitigating the economic effects of the health crisis. Moreover, as the pandemic accelerates digitalisation, there are fears that the gap between digital “haves” and “have-nots” will widen.
Even where there is coverage, other barriers may exist. These include affordability – it may be prohibitively expensive to access the internet – and so-called digital illiteracy, which is a lack of familiarity with digital methods that can deter people from using them.
Governments and private companies in emerging economies around the world responded to the pandemic by implementing broadbased and innovative digital solutions. From boosting bandwidth to allowing students to browse educational sites free of charge, such solutions went a long way in mitigating the worst impacts of the lockdowns.
Meanwhile, governments have employed policies to improve the resilience of digital infrastructure, with research agency Omdia’s Telecoms Regulation Covid-19 Tracker identifying over 250 regulatory responses to the pandemic as of mid-2020. One approach has been to liberalise the market to allow more players to build and operate networks, while other governments have moved to require infrastructure projects like roads or pipelines to include fibre-optic links. Such measures both expand connectivity and generate opportunities for private firms to collaborate, driving innovation and lowering costs.
Numerous emerging economies had successfully implemented programmes to expand internet access prior to the pandemic. In Colombia, for example, the Vive Digital plan created almost 900 free public access internet centres in rural villages between 2010 and 2014. Similarly, in China the Villages Connected programme – announced in October 2015 – led to the installation of broadband internet in nearly 70,000 villages across the country.
Companies in the private sector also have a role to play in enhancing access. Since 2018 South-east Asian super app Grab has worked with South Korean telecoms giant Samsung to improve connectivity in under-served regions, for example by offering microfinance to drivers for the purchase of mobile devices.
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