Clean water, transport, electricity and internet are a normal part of everyday life to many, yet millions around the world still lack access to these key utilities. So, what would it take to connect everyone in the world?
Without these an individual’s educational and economic opportunities are greatly impacted, as well as their access to services such as banking and healthcare.
But which of the most disenfranchised groups should we focus on to increase the number of people connected to what we consider as essentials to modern life, and is it possible to connect everyone in the world?
For most people reading this article, fast, reliable internet access is a given. When we have a question, it is second nature to pick up our phone and search on Google, or even ask your smart home device of choice.
Yet the reality is, according to World’s Bank data, only just over half of the world’s population (56.6 per cent) has access to the internet and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that a third of the world – that’s 2.9 billion people – have never used the internet.
Connectivity is at the heart of digital inclusion and the current levels of access equate to a digital divide on a global scale.
At top level, a digital divide is considered the split between those with access to the internet and those without, but there are different types when you look closely.
Access, or availability, is just one example of a digital divide and can relate to access to equipment that enables people to go online as much as communications infrastructure. Digital divides can also be down to a poor quality of service or being unable to afford access to the internet.
There’s also a divide around digital literacy and/or skills, meaning people might not know how to connect to the internet confidently or understand how to use some devices.
Those on the wrong side of any given digital divide are getting left behind, excluded not only from communicating with friends, but also faced with barriers to online education, healthcare, and financial services.
According to Hagorly M Hutasuhut, founder and director of the Indonesia-based company INSITEK, digital divides can cause whole communities to lose out in terms of productivity.
“Digital divides prevent them from having access to cheaper digital communications and information as well as access to things like electronic financial infrastructure,” he notes.
“The consequences to missing out on those are huge and prevent communities from being competitive, as well as isolating them; stunting their ability to participate in value exchange within their region as well as globally.”
Massimiliano Claps, a research director at analyst firm IDC, gives the example of how a lack of digital skills could impact a modern-day farmer.
“Imagine I’ve been working as a farmer for 20 years – I’m highly knowledgeable about certain things but never learnt how to use collaborative tools, have no idea what an IoT sensor is or how to use a drone in line with regulation. These are all things which could be really useful to me nowadays – to monitor and optimise crop growth, for example.”
Our move towards a digital-first world was hugely accelerated by the global pandemic, as more organisations switched to online services in order to continue ‘business as usual’. This highlighted the importance of digital services to people’s lives and livelihoods, reinforcing the negative impact of digital divides, as the unconnected were less able to mitigate the resulting economic and social disruption.
One of the biggest issues to hit headlines, for example, was remote teaching during lockdowns.
“What we saw during the pandemic was that children who didn’t have access to the digital skills, broadband and kit they needed were severely disadvantaged and this led to their education suffering,” says Freddie Quek, chair of the BCS Digital Divide Specialist Group.
“This also has a direct impact on any country’s economy,” he continues. “According to the Royal Society, in the UK, the impact of lost school hours during the pandemic could affect the economy for 65 years.”
The pandemic also eroded some work already undertaken to improve access to the internet. For example, according to figures from the GSMA, women are now 16 per cent less likely than men to use mobile internet across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This is up from 15 per cent the previous year, when the gender gap had been falling year on year from 25 per cent in 2017.
So, who are the most disenfranchised groups we need to focus on to make the biggest impact to access figures?
When it comes to gender, globally there’s very little difference between levels of connectivity for men (62 per cent) and women (57 per cent). However, the gap between sexes widens when you focus on the least developed countries (LDCs), with males standing at 31 per cent and females at 19 per cent.
If we looked geographically, unsurprisingly North America and Europe have the best level of connectivity at over 80 per cent, while Africa is the least connected continent at just 25 per cent. But it would make the most difference to connect Asia Pacific first. This is because, although it has 58 per cent connectivity, it also has 59.4 per cent of the world’s population, which leaves 1.83 billion people in the continent without access.
So, if we added the whole of Asia Pacific to those already connected globally, it would result in the overall level reaching 80.1 per cent. If we then connected Africa, that would take world connectivity to 93 per cent.
If we instead focus on age groups, you may think that connecting the over-65s would have the biggest impact. However, connecting every single person over 65 would only raise the percentage of connected people by 9.3 per cent, as this group is mainly found in areas with higher connectivity.
The reality is that the least connected age group is 35-44, mainly due to that demographic being higher in Asia and Africa. Connecting all these individuals would raise the percentage by 11 per cent.
If we can deal with the worst two geographical regions and the two lowest connected age groups, we would almost be able to connect the entire world.
The current percentage of the world that has internet access is 56.6 per cent. If we were able to connect everyone in Asia Pacific, that figure would rise by 23.5 per cent. Then, if we also got internet access to everyone in Africa, that would be a further 12.9 per cent. This would bring the global total to 93.9 per cent.
If you were to then connect the remainder (those not living in Africa or Asia Pacific) of the two lowest unconnected age groups – which are 35-44 (1.2 per cent) and 45-54 (2.8 per cent) – we would get to 97 per cent world connectivity.
Clearly, these are the groups we need to support.
Improving with innovation
So, what is being done, or should be, to improve access to the internet? On the ground, innovators continue to come up with new ideas, such as Hutasuhut’s ‘Helion’ balloons.
These are tethered several hundred metres in the air and distribute a Wi-Fi signal to the surrounding area. Costing a third of traditional tower infrastructure and providing more flexible coverage, they are just one of many ideas being thought up to support rural or remote connectivity.
This type of solution can help improve connectivity for small groups, but to make a real difference in the numbers, we need to think bigger.
The Smart Africa Alliance is doing just that, with its SMART Broadband 2025 initiative that aims to deliver increased affordability and access to broadband connectivity to Africa over the next three years.
The Alliance is a mix of member states and private sector organisations including Facebook, Intelsat, Orange and HPE, that plan to increase broadband penetration to 51 per cent of the continent by 2025 and transition 12 of the lowest connected African countries to over 20 per cent penetration.
Having identified challenges that have encumbered Africa in terms of improving connectivity, such as lack of infrastructure – particularly the last mile, digital awareness, literacy and affordability of services – the test is now turning this goal into reality.
The Alliance has developed a strategy to support its aims, which points to improving policies and regulations to incentivise investment, enabling infrastructure sharing, encouraging public social initiatives, improving digital literacy, and increasing access to a broad range of spectrum resources, which will reduce provider costs and barriers to entry.
“One of the most important things governments can do is reduce spectrum fees and mobile-specific taxation to improve affordability. Reducing costs of access to spectrum will help operators invest in areas with a lower return on investment,” says John Giusti, chief regulatory officer and head of advocacy at the GSMA, which is also a member of the Smart Africa Alliance.
A growing number of projects to improve broadband infrastructure at national, regional, and continental levels are already underway as part of this initiative. As well as taking steps to improve connectivity, the Alliance hopes these will also inspire others to get involved.
So, international collaboration – and funds – is key.
This Alliance shows how improving connectivity requires huge collaborative and financial efforts from governments, private companies, international/intergovernmental alliances, and philanthropic organisations.
“It can’t be down to only the public purse, it’s got to be an ecosystem effort using different channels of financing,” says Claps. “If you look at emerging countries, international financial institutions have a primary role to play as they use vehicles like public private partnerships to fill the gaps.
“Governments like Ghana and Zimbabwe simply wouldn’t be able to afford to improve infrastructure, for example, but international partnerships between organisations like Microsoft and the World Bank can accelerate the necessary investment.”
We are seeing this in action at events like the ITU’s latest Partner2Connect (P2C) Digital Development Roundtable. Held this June, 360 pledges were made to support advancing universal connectivity, worth an estimated US$18.5bn in funds, services and technical support.
“The Doha Programme of Action calls for all people in the least developed countries (LDCs) to have safe, affordable and meaningful digital connectivity by 2030. We’re only going to get there with joint work and the long-term partnerships that P2C represents. It’s an inspiring example of how relationships that span different sectors can deliver for the LDCs,” says Heidi Schroderus-Fox, UN acting high representative for the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states (UN-OHRLLS).
Will we ever connect the entire world?
Technologically and practically, it is possible to connect the entire world, but are we truly likely to achieve this goal? No. This is because the most remote communities don’t know about, or they choose to reject, more modern ways of life.
Scattered around the world from the Amazon to Africa are over 100 tribes without contact to the outside world. Take the Sentinelese. This small group of people living on a tiny archipelago in the Indian Ocean will attack any outsiders that approach them.
We may never fully connect the world, but we can get close, and improve the quality of life for millions – if not billions – of people.
Other ways to connect
Clean water is humanity’s most important utility, yet World Health Organization (WHO) figures show that in 2020, one in four people still did not have access to a safely managed drinking water source.
Covid-19 yet again played a role in highlighting the importance of connecting the world – this time to clean water – as handwashing was one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet as recently as 2017, UN figures show that only 60 per cent of people had a basic handwashing facility with soap and water at home. In the least-developed countries (LDCs) this dropped to just 28 per cent.
Water is not only essential to our health, but also that of livestock and crops – and therefore food security. It is also key to social and economic equality and growth, as time wasted travelling to clean water sources could be spent in school or working. It is understandable then that access to clean water is a hugely important UN sustainable development goal. However, challenges related to improving access to clean water span social, political, financial, institutional, environmental and engineering sectors.
“According to Unicef, collapsed infrastructure and distribution systems, contamination, conflict, or poor management of resources can all contribute to either preventing people from access to clean water or removing it,” says Beth Koigi, CEO and co-founder of water dispenser company Majik Water.
“In addition to human factors, it’s clear that climate change is compounding the problem,” she adds. “In Africa, we’re seeing droughts come earlier and stay for longer, with increasing intensity. I’m increasingly coming across areas of Kenya where there’s regularly no water available as rivers run dry and the water table drops.”
Sub-Saharan Africa and central and southern Asia are the two regions with the least access to clean water, leaving 940 million people without access. The rest of the world has 670 million combined.
Globally, urban access comes in at 86 per cent, leaving 610 million without clean water, while rural areas only have 60 per cent, meaning 1.36 billion people in rural areas are without access – that’s 17.5 per cent of the world’s population.
So, what can be done?
To raise the number of people with access to clean water, there needs to be large-scale government-led investment, says Vincent Casey, senior WASH manager – water, at WaterAid.
He advises that policy, legal and regulatory changes may also need to be made to ensure water operators and providers of maintenance services can play a greater role in supporting water service delivery.
Greater decentralisation of water service provision to skilled and well-resourced local service providers also needs to happen. “These may be municipalities and local governments or privately run operators and utilities.”
In some rural areas it may not be possible to reach everyone, therefore a big part of improving access to water is understanding each community’s unique challenges and tailoring solutions to them, notes Koigi.
“In these instances, households and communities must be enabled to establish their own water supply access or manage their own access. Strategies and action plans must be in place to reach low-income and remote households with water services through a combination of different service delivery models ranging from self-supply, community-managed, public, private and hybrid options,” Casey advises.
“There’s no single way to get a water supply to everyone and no golden solution, but it is possible for everyone in the world to have access to clean water if a variety of solutions are deployed.”
Other ways to connect
As a global society, we are far from achieving UN sustainable development goal 7 – to ensure access to affordable, reliable sustainable and modern energy for all.
According to this year’s ‘Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report’, approximately 733 million people – 9 per cent of the world – were living without electricity in 2020, and that number is undoubtedly much higher for people living with unreliable service.
The consequences of not having access to (reliable) electricity are enormous, as it can impact economic productivity and opportunities for income generation, notes Jem Porcaro, head of energy access at international organisation Sustainable Energy for All. It can also affect schools and their ability to educate, and healthcare facilities, where power could be the difference between life and death.
A lack of electricity also perpetuates reliance on more polluting and hazardous fuels. “Without power, the poor use significant amounts of their limited income on expensive, low-quality and occasionally unsafe energy forms. Simply put, the world cannot end poverty without ending energy poverty.”
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is where the access battle will be won or lost – the region accounted for just over three-quarters of the global access deficit in 2020, a share that has risen in recent years. It is also home to the three largest deficit countries — Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia – which account for 30 per cent of this deficit.
If we were able to connect SSA, this would bring the global figure of people connected to electricity up to 98.2 per cent.
The lack of access in developing countries such as these stems from shortcomings in the power sector says Porcaro.
“An over-reliance on an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to electrification (distribution specifically) is arguably one of the most important factors in explaining their low electrification rates.
“Most countries pursued centralised grid extension projects as the de facto model, but 50 years of this approach delivered mixed results. It proved to be particularly ill-suited to rural Africa, where there’s limited demand and ability to pay. To this day, companies find it difficult to justify grid extension to rural parts of Africa, where revenues are generally low and the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure is high.”
These challenges are compounded by the fact that in many countries, strong political and social pressures keep electricity tariffs below cost-reflective levels. This often lands distribution companies in low-access countries in perilous conditions.
“All but two public electric utilities in SSA run quasi-fiscal deficits,” says Porcaro. “This deters private capital from flowing into the market.”
Porcaro believes it is possible for everyone in the world to have access to electricity, but that the real question is how quickly we can ensure universal access.
“To achieve this by 2030, developing countries need an integrated approach to electrification; one that takes full advantage of the power grid and distributed technologies such as mini-grids and solar home systems.
“Efforts also need to be inclusive and demand-driven, meaning they need to address the needs of poor households, businesses and social infrastructure and pay specific attention to advancing gender equality and social inclusion,” he notes.
One of the more promising and fast-growing solutions within this integrated approach is distributed renewable energy (DRE), with growth fuelled by falling prices of solar PV/battery solutions and energy-efficient appliances, and the emergence of pay-as-you-go solar businesses.
“Over the past decade, innovation has made DRE more affordable, faster to deploy and more impactful than ever before,” Porcaro says. “This makes them a compelling proposition for expanding access, particularly in rural and remote areas where most underserved populations live.”
Other ways to connect
Transport is fundamental to supporting economic growth, creating jobs and connecting people to essential services such as healthcare or education. Yet access remains a significant challenge for many.
Some key obstacles impeding mobility include inadequate infrastructure and services, plus affordability.
For example, mass transit services remain limited in many urban areas, as does access to good-quality walking and cycling infrastructure. Furthermore, one billion people still live more than 2km from an all-weather road, according to the World Bank, and funding is falling for projects that address this, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa.
IDC research director Massimiliano Claps says a good place to start in responding to these issues is to identify areas in a certain geography and groups of the population that may struggle to access transport, and then figure out the best solution to help them.
Regarding access to transportation in urban areas, it’s easy to justify investing in a new public transit route, but when passenger numbers are lower and more widely spread out the figures simply don’t add up.
A potential solution here is demand-responsive transport (DRT). This is where vehicles alter their routes each journey based on demand, rather than have a fixed route or timetable.
DRT can similarly be applied to travellers with mobility issues, points out Claps. “Instead of paying to equip every bus with the necessary facilities, you can organise transport with special access features on demand.”
Additionally, more authorities are promoting public transport as a more sustainable way to travel and are incentivising this option by lowering costs. This is having a knock-on effect of making public transport more affordable.
In Germany, cities such as Augsburg have introduced a flat-fee monthly ticket that offers unlimited travel on buses, trains, rental bikes and car-sharing services, while this summer, the country is offering travellers a €9 monthly ticket for unlimited local and national rail services during July and August.
There is no quick fix to the challenge of connecting the world via transportation, but small steps can be a great place to start and offer positive returns. For example, when a World Bank-funded road programme improved connectivity to remote villages in Morocco, 20 per cent more children went to school, including 7.4 per cent more girls.