COVID-19 Exposed the Digital Divide. Here’s How We Can Close It.

The pandemic has recast our view of internet connectivity for all as a critical component to an equitable society. Yet many rural and low-income communities around the world, including those in large urban areas, lack reliable, affordable internet access. Learn what needs to be done now to close this digital divide.

Originally published on World Economic Forum Website as part of the 2021 Davos Agenda

By John Roese, Global Chief Technology Officer, Dell Technologies

In 2020, the world embraced digital transformation at an expedited pace, reimagining technology’s critical role in how we work, learn and live. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated a long-standing issue: billions of people remain without the universal human right of internet access.

I’ve always believed that technology has the ability to do a tremendous amount of good and help humans thrive and achieve things that once seemed impossible. Technology is meant to be the great equalizer, not a source of division. Unfortunately, the gap between the haves and have nots is widening across the US and the world due to a lack of internet access for both people and an expanding pool of connected intelligent devices. Advancing the global good must start with ensuring everyone on Earth can go wireless and access the full capability of technology. Closing the digital divide is reliant on making 5G available to everyone, everywhere, in a modern and open way.

Narrowing the Gap

According to the FCC, 97 percent of Americans in urban areas have access to a high-speed, fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65 percent and on tribal lands to 60 percent. In total, nearly 30 million Americans cannot fully benefit from the digital age.

The global outlook is even more dire. According to an International Telecommunication Union report, in the developed world the internet penetration rate is 87 percent but just 47 percent in developing countries and 19 percent in the least developed countries.

Internet access is low among the economically vulnerable
Internet access is low among the economically vulnerable
Image: Statista

Remote learning during the pandemic has been far from universal and primary and secondary school students (K-12 in the US) who are defined as “poor” suffer from the digital divide. A study by the US’ National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that poor students are less likely to have the equipment needed to attend online school; 7 percent of eighth-graders who are poor don’t have internet access compared to only 1.6 percent of non-poor students. Without reliable internet, these economic inequalities will continue to grow.

People without robust internet access are being left behind academically and economically. We have a moral imperative to ensure everyone can be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Through early investments and targeted deployments, 5G can create value across local and national economies and contribute to economic stimulus. Furthermore, with the innovation 5G enables, we can transform industries like education and healthcare, job and skills training, civic engagement and even public services. This is only possible if we make 5G the responsibility of not just traditional telecom but a shared focus of the telecom, cloud and IT industries.

The number of fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people
The number of fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people
Image: Our World in Data

Building a New Kind of Connectivity

Building 5G infrastructure is a massive undertaking requiring a multitude of additional cellular towers and new distributed architectures using software-defined networks – it is not simply an evolution of 4G. It’s reasonable to describe the build-out of both public and private 5G at a national and global scale as one of the most massive infrastructure programs of our generation. Today, however, the state of the telecom industry and technology has fallen behind the evolutionary speed of the cloud and IT worlds. This makes early 5G more expensive and more difficult than it needs to be to achieve impact.

Additionally, current efforts to develop 5G networks have been segmented, with most regions seeing no 5G deployment at all and to date only limited use of 5G by enterprises. Segmentation can deepen the digital divide, restrict innovation and even limit much-needed digital transformations of health, education and transportation. To address segmentation, we need to dramatically expand the technology system that can deliver the innovation and outcomes of 5G.

This starts by rethinking how 5G systems should be built. We need to shift away from legacy telecom architectures and embrace virtual, software-defined, open and automated technologies. This requires investment from major IT and cloud companies, which has already started but needs to move faster.

With 5G, we can achieve what was once impossible for humans. Imagine a globally connected virtual classroom that enables every student to learn regardless of language, comprehension style or geography; or doctors around the world who can use AI and edge computing to take advantage of real-time intelligence for quicker, more collaborative and focused patient care; or a city where citizens are connected to critical services through autonomous transportation that brings those services to them. All of this can be made possible through a 5G system that is realized through the combined effort of the telecom, cloud and IT industries.

The Time for Transformative Change

By investing in emerging technologies like 5G wireless communications technology, governments and the private sector can come together to address the inequities in our communities and create meaningful, permanent change to guarantee all citizens have access to the technology they need for work and school.

Furthermore, countries that drive this innovation and create a broader, more robust technology system to support their development of 5G infrastructure can increase market competitiveness, prevent vendor lock-in and lower costs at a time when governments globally need to prioritize spending. This investment will help businesses and governments create more sustainable and inclusive economies, which will be critical to long-term business continuity and human progress.

For many, the pandemic has recast our view of internet connectivity for all as a critical component to an equitable society. We believe that we will need the entire cloud, IT and telecom industry working together as we enter the next era of connectivity–an era of connecting not just everyone, but everything; and not just transforming access but enabling the digital transformation of every element of our economy and society. It is critical we seize this moment and rise to the occasion to deliver the full potential of 5G connectivity – and the right to internet access – to all.