Digital bridges: enabling remote communities to join the Internet age

The United Nations in 2011 declared broadband Internet to be a basic human right, but is it? Fast forward to 2015 and US President Obama appeared to agree when he said: “Today, high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” But the big question is can digital transformation of everything really change lives?

Digitization is undoubtedly driving fundamental changes in society. Take for example, low-income Filipino’s attempting to survive through small-scale fisheries? Here it just might. The Philippines Department of Agriculture Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) last year launched a smartphone app to register small scale fishing boats and their fishing gear. It hopes the app will help boost development of marine fisheries as the country aims to raise some of its poorest people out of poverty.

China recognizes the transformative potential of Internet access in rural communities and has begun investing billions in getting them online. The government hopes to grow ecommerce, help local farmers and raise investment funds in these poorer areas through provision of a better broadband infrastructure.

The idea that Internet access can enable new communities is not a new one. UK entrepreneur, Bruce Evans, won a Daily Telegraph/3i Group competition in 2005 with Cotnet, his vision of an online cotton exchange in which cotton growers would deal directly with end users, cutting out the traditional middle-men of the industry. The system would have enabled better prices for growers and buyers, but this system failed, partly because Internet access wasn’t yet available in the producing regions and partly because the UK at least wasn’t yet fully au fait with the connected opportunity. This scheme did, however, hint at the digital future of logistics.

Digital transformation of remote communities

When it comes to getting remote communities online, mobile broadband is definitely part of the solution. Over 80 percent of broadband is already mobile, according to Broadband Commission claims. Most countries – even the UK – at least pay some lip service to bringing the most remote communities online. The Plunkett Report recognized that ecommerce, government services and access to things like information about switching utility suppliers and local council services all demand people have internet access. Both developed and developing nations are exploring the potential of white space broadband and satellite Internet to bring remote communities online. Microsoft, for example, is developing white space broadband projects in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.

Microsoft isn’t alone. Big Internet firms are also applying themselves to bridge this digital divide and also see the business potential. That’s what drives schemes by the big Internet players to extend Internet access to developing economies, the deal being that while corporations gain access to new markets, those in these markets gain access to new services, including the growing stable of connected health solutions that promise to ease suffering and expedite life-saving support for remote communities.

Business also seems to form part of the solutions matrix espoused by the world’s 12th biggest global aid supplier, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which continues to plough First World IT industry profit into improving medicine and healthcare in developing nations. However, critics say the Foundation has a tendency to weigh the balance too much in favor of big business, and this may exacerbate existing problems by disempowering the very communities that so desperately need help. Can this imbalance be resolved by enabling communities to create their own connected communities, solutions, and explore their own opportunities?

Water or web?

Critics argue that Internet access is nice to have, but the desire for it needs to be put in context against a local population’s more immediate need for clean water, sanitation or basic medical care. Enabling communities with access to these basic human needs should be the first priority, surely?

The World Bank’s “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” report reveals that the number of people connected to the internet reached an estimated 3.5 billion in the last decade, up from 1 billion. In many developing countries, more families own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water. So yes, this is the first priority.

While most agree at the pressing need for disaster relief, the technologists’ argument is that internet access can enable whole communities to build links and gain knowledge to help them solve their own problems, and can also provide access to life-saving help and support. This is more sustainable that an reliance on aid.

To take one example, in Africa mobile money services have become a vital component of economic growth in some communities. Orange Money moves $400,000 per month across its African network – in many cases this is money sent home by family members who have travelled to find work with which to support their families. Already 40% of adults in east Africa pay utility bills using a mobile phone, while 8 million Chinese entrepreneurs in use an e-commerce platform to sell goods to over 120-countries.

Digital dividend boosts economies

The economic benefits of online access also mean something, and not just in developing nations. A recent US National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) study revealed a $4 billion investment in getting US communities online has increased economic output “as much as $21 billion annually”. Meanwhile a 2011 ITU study claims doubling broadband speed increases a country's GDP by 0.3 per cent.

The immediate needs for food, water, shelter must also be balanced by the transformative impact of mobile Internet access to enable communities to overcome these immediate challenges. In Bangladesh, farmers gained access to mobile Internet-based microfinance schemes that combined loans and savings in sync with the growing season. This gave farmers the flexibility they required to become more sustainable.

This is true, but The World Bank warns that the digital opportunity is not being shared out equally. “For digital dividends to be widely shared among all parts of society, countries also need to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance,” said Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank’s president.

Finally, online also offers fresh opportunity, empowering a new generation of developing world entrepreneurs to build new products and services. Connected exploration tools, such as those seen in the oil and gas industries may help identify potentially lucrative sources of raw materials, while connected agricultural solutions on a larger scale may turn famine into feast.

Orange Business is deeply involved in helping developing nations embrace the digital opportunity. Read about how we are assisting African business to grow and succeed across the continent here.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.