ruralInternet access has spread to the degree that a shift in priorities is in order to bridge the digital divide, according to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). “The focus,” according to “Redefining the digital divide”, should now be on “the willingness and ability of citizens to use [broadband]  for productive purposes.”

Current strategies to bridge the digital divide “don’t necessarily address the underlying gaps such as affordability, usage and relevance of content,” the report authors point out, “with country approaches varying significantly in terms of leadership, funding and technologies.”

Commissioned by Huawei, key takeaways from the report include:

  • Affordability remains a key obstacle to ICT adoption.
    • 63% of survey respondents cite affordability as the most serious contributor to the digital divide, while 56% cite the lack of ability/skills to use ICT (information and communications technology).
    • Research from France and the US shows that broadband penetration levels fall by as much as half among lower income populations.
  • The urban/rural divide is a key concern, particularly the need for greater speeds outside major urban areas.
    • Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents say there is an urban/rural digital divide in their country.
    • In the US, about 14.5m of the 19m people that lack broadband access are in rural areas.
  • Policymakers and telecommunications executives are sharply divided on the key obstacles to solving the divide.
    • Policymakers, obviously concerned with social inclusion, are twice as likely as telecom executives to city the lack of ability/skills to use ICT as the primary contributor to the digital divide today.
    • Telecom executives, more concerned with reaching new customers and selling higher-end services, are twice as likely as policymakers to view the urban/rural divide and speed as major hurdles.
  • Funding is the biggest area of disagreement between the industry and policymakers.
    • The use of universal service funds and investment models for less profitable urban and rural areas are cited as key obstacles to further development.
    • Funding schemes vary greatly between countries—from heavy government-led investment in Australia to a laissez-faire approach in the US. It is too early to tell which will deliver the greatest common good.
  • Competition is crucial but regulation is equally important.
    • A majority of survey respondents say regulation is a benefit rather than a burden in creating greater access to the Internet.
    • In France, which has a strong regulatory regime, 86% of households have a choice of at least two providers.
    • In the US, by contrast, a weak regulatory environment has led to agreements between companies not to enter each others’ territories, and only 14% of households have a choice of cable operator.

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