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April 27, 2015

Responding To: Global Futures Contest: The End of World Poverty

Closing the Digital Divide

Haley Lepp

It is the year 2030, and the gap between rich and poor is quickly closing. People of all ages, genders, abilities, cultures, races, ethnicities, origins, and religions have access to education and healthcare, opportunities to succeed economically, and the capacity to communicate and collaborate across wide distances. A high school student in China, a grandmother in Nigeria, and a university professor in Argentina can work together to develop a low-cost apparatus for delivering renewable energy to rural villages. A German rare-disease specialist can treat a suffering Malaysian child from her office in Berlin. A 20-year-old girl from a slum outside of Mumbai who spent her childhood hungry now supports her family by coding for a global search engine. Resources, location, background, and political environment no longer prevent individuals from living healthy and productive lives.

To many people, this utopia is already a reality. At any given time, three billion people around the world are connected to the internet, and that number increases every year. Information and communications technology (ICT) has nearly saturated the markets of the G-20, resulting in an internet economy of over four trillion USD. Imaginative entrepreneurs can create their own online businesses with minimal risk, and a seemingly unending array of engineering opportunities provides jobs to people of all backgrounds. The growing ICT sector empowers individuals to sidestep the historical barriers that used to limit economic growth, social development, and healthy living. However, as the three billion connected users realize the infinite possibilities of the internet, the unconnected four billion falls further behind. Without disruptive change, the ICT industry will not only fail to diminish the international wealth gap, but the digital divide will continue to drive extreme poverty around the world.

The reason that internet connectivity is only available to certain markets stems not from technical limitations but from the corporate structure of the ICT industry. The internet, as it exists today, functions as a network of centralized networks. To become part of one of these networks, users must access an internet Service Provider (ISP). ISPs, which have continued to merge over the last decade, are decreasing in number, and therefore hold an immense amount of control over their user bases. ISPs can, and have, leveraged that control as a source of market power to keep prices high and competition low. As a result, connectivity continues to be a luxury good, only available to those who can afford to pay for expensive contracts. Limited access as a result of poverty can occur at an individual level, by the choice of consumers, or at a corporate level: ISPs can choose not to build infrastructure in low-income areas, from underserved communities in the United States to impoverished populations in developing countries.

To combat discrimination in ICT distribution, this market structure needs to change. The international community must create incentives for ISPs to develop connectivity infrastructure in areas that, because of remoteness, poverty, or political instability, are not attractive markets for businesses. Within the United States, Congress continues to debate whether internet and telecommunications services should be regulated as utilities in order to bring connectivity to underserved populations. While this controversy remains inconclusive, it is clear that something must change within the industry to ensure equity and inclusivity in an increasingly digital economy.

internet connectivity alone will not ensure our utopian 2030 scenario. Rapid urbanization in the developing world, especially in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, will only be economically scalable and environmentally sustainable with low-cost “smart” infrastructure. Economic empowerment throughout societies, and not simply in elite subsections, will only be possible with affordable access portals. The cost of ICT devices, from computers and mobile phones to “smart cities” and ICT-based energy infrastructure, must decrease drastically for extreme poverty to be eliminated. In this regard, mobile devices appear to be leading the way; their cost has fallen so significantly in the last five years that more than 75 percent of the world’s population now has access to cellphones. As ICT devices become cheaper, it will be more profitable for businesses to sell low-cost products to massive audiences rather than only expensive luxury goods to first-movers. International institutions must encourage companies to produce lower-cost versions of devices in order to support this positive feedback loop.

The realization by 2030 of a future in which people around the world have worked together to escape and eradicate extreme poverty and systemic economic stagnation is well within reach. If public-private partnerships and international regulations can incentivize the creation of energy and telecommunications infrastructure in all geographic locations and develop a mechanism to diminish the cost of ICT devices, a connected world will see inclusive, equitable economic growth. While the digital divide that segregates the rich and the poor poses a threat to the realization of the World Bank’s goal, strategic economic planning is a small price to pay for a connected, empowered world and the eradication of extreme poverty everywhere.

Haley Lepp (SFS'15) is a graduating senior in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She studies the ways that information technology affects international affairs, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. After graduation, she will spend a year in Jordan on a fellowship from the Center for Arabic Study Abroad to strengthen her Arabic language skills.

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