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January 29, 2021updated 04 Apr 2022 1:09pm

Closing the digital divide is central to the Covid-19 recovery

Businesses are hoping for a digital-led recovery from Covid-19 but new analysis by Tech Monitor reveals that digital infrastructure in many countries still falls far short.

By Amy Borrett and Patrick Scott

Ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns are laying bare the cracks in global digital infrastructure. Many communities in the developed as well as the developing world still lack access to internet of sufficient quality to work and learn from home, presenting an acute risk for long-term economic growth. A digital-led recovery is not viable if employees and customers alike cannot participate in the digital economy.

Covid-19 has shown that internet access is a necessity, “like access to electricity or clean water”, as Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told Tech Monitor last year.

And while the proportion of people who are internet users has increased rapidly across the world in the past two decades – 61% on average in 2020, up from 9% in 2000, according to GlobalData – many countries still fall short when it comes to providing fast, reliable and affordable connectivity.

A Tech Monitor analysis of millions of internet speed tests taken on Ookla’s Speedtest website shows that in more than 70 nations, speeds sufficient for the digital era are available in less than half the country by area. These include Mexico (where sufficient speed is available in 46% of the country), Greece (31%) and Turkey (27%).

Different definitions of what constitute sufficient internet speeds exist, but for this analysis, we have used the US Federation Communications Commission’s (FCC) definition of broadband. According to the FCC, upload speeds of 3Mb/s and download speeds of 25Mb/s are needed to cope with “advances in technology, market offerings by broadband providers and consumer demand”.

Fixed broadband contributes to economic growth particularly in developed countries while improving mobile broadband makes the most difference in developing economies, says Martin Schaaper, a senior ICT analyst at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

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Research by the ITU found that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration in Africa boosts GDP by 2.46%, while an improvement in fixed broadband of the same magnitude has no significant impact.

Conversely, a 10% rise in fixed broadband in high-income European countries raises GDP by almost 3%, while mobile broadband improvements provide negligible economic benefits.

“There are clear [economic] benefits of having broadband take-up throughout the country, so that should give an incentive to also invest in rural areas,” says Schaaper. “But, of course, companies may think it’s not profitable enough, so that’s where governments need to step in.”

Unsurprisingly, richer nations tend to have better internet speeds with the top ten countries by GDP in Tech Monitor’s analysis of Ookla’s data having an average broadband coverage of 89.2% between them, compared with an average of 7.3% for the bottom ten countries.

Singapore has broadband coverage in 99.6% of areas*, according to the data, the highest for any country, while China comes second on 99.3% and South Korea third with 99.1%.

Some of the world’s least developed economies can be found at the bottom of this list with broadband-level coverage as low as 1.3% in Yemen, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

But while developing countries still lag significantly, especially when it comes to fixed broadband access, issues relating to the quality of access pervade the developed world as well.

Poor infrastructure, cost barriers and a lack of digital skills all hamper developed countries from providing universal internet access, says Schaaper.

“Even within countries, if you look at the difference between the top 20% and the bottom 20% in terms of income, there’s a big difference in internet access,” he says. “In developed countries, all the high-income households have internet access, but in the lowest 20% it can be [as low as] 60%.”

Slow speeds, in addition to a lack of access, can also hamper developed nations, with G7 nations such as France and Italy having lower levels of high-speed broadband coverage than many emerging market economies.

Italy is particularly slow with nearly a third of areas seeing average fixed internet download speeds of less than 25Mb/s, according to Ookla. This poor performance is more likely to be found in rural areas but, as the map below shows, inner-cities are often also peppered with black spots.

Poor internet performance is more likely to be found in rural areas but, as the map of Italy shows, inner-cities are often also peppered with black spots.

This urban-rural divide is less of a problem if people are regularly commuting into well-connected offices in city centres; however, with a rise in home working likely to persist beyond the pandemic, areas with fast internet connections in rural areas could prove to be a big pull factor for workers.

Covid-19 has likely exacerbated existing inequalities in internet access and created new ones, with the closure of workplaces and public spaces like libraries where people traditionally could access free Wi-Fi, says Adam Lang, head of innovation foundation Nesta in Scotland.

“Do people have the amount of data they need?” he says. “That’s something that, particularly in the context of the pandemic, is more important than ever when people’s other options are so significantly limited.

“Making sure that is equitable across the geography of the country is absolutely vital because that’s how you build the enabling infrastructure to allow people to seize opportunities.”

Building universal digital access into the Covid-19 recovery

The economic argument for improving internet access across the developing and developed world after Covid-19 is clear. Now, to reap those benefits, governments need to embrace digital connectivity as a central tenet of their recovery plans, so says the ITU.

This is particularly important for SMEs, which are the “key engines of economic growth” and rely on local digital ecosystems, it argues.

An increasingly digital population presents a wealth of economic opportunity for governments and companies alike, says Schaaper.

“If people can do tax returns and all kinds of government services online, it will be more efficient for the government,” he says. “If people discover [online] services being offered by a bank or company, there will be more e-commerce, that will be good for service providers as well.”

But there are dangers from banking on a digital recovery to the Covid-19 pandemic without accompanying improvements to infrastructure and internet access.

The flexibility afforded by the pandemic has convinced many employers that remote work is viable, with the number of executives embracing a remote workforce two or more days a week almost doubling since before Covid-19, according to McKinsey. However, employers need to consider the implications of digital inequalities within their workforce, says Nesta’s Lang.

“From a Scotland perspective, a very live topic of discussion at the moment is what have the working patterns in the pandemic shown in terms of whether it’s possible for jobs to be located more evenly across the country in the future,” he says. “[If that’s going to happen] we need to make sure that people [have] data access and infrastructure to enable them to work in a more geographically spread way.”

Companies also need to be mindful of persistent inequalities in internet access when designing digital products and services for their customers, or risk excluding important segments of the population.

In recent years, we have seen the dangers of designing services as ‘digital by default’, with the UN’s extreme poverty monitor criticising the UK’s universal credit scheme for hurting those most in need because of the digital barriers to access.

A shift towards ‘digital by default’ offerings by companies also risks exacerbating existing exclusion and inequalities in access, says Lang.

“How do we make sure that we’re including the people we want in the design of the service or the product?” he says. “We must make sure that when we are designing services or products digitally that we’re not jumping to the solution before we understand what consumers need.”

*These areas do not bear any relation to administrative geographies. They are, instead, squares of 610x610m overlaid across the globe. Our analysis assigns these squares to countries and only keeps squares where more than five speed tests were carried out across three or more devices.

Home page image by Shutterstock/Steve Heap.

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