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Existing Barriers to Universal Digital Access

Photo Credit: VisualHunt

Following our review on the existing state of universal digital access and its importance, we started to look at the existing barriers to universal digital access.

About 4 billion unconnected individuals across the globe cannot access internet as a result of one or more of the following key issues:

a.    Infrastructure: People in rural areas are faced with the challenge of distance. They are often far from established infrastructure points, and these areas typically have few people living there. That makes the cost of connectivity per person significantly higher, and decreases internet service providers’ incentives to build out to them. The case for developing countries is even more serious due to the fact that infrastructure still lags. “Mobile online coverage is the main means of internet connectivity for most people in these areas, as 95% of the world’s population is covered by at least a 2G network, and 69% is covered by 3G connectivity or better, although the extent of 3G or better coverage drops to 29% in rural areas. While infrastructure is a prerequisite, 3G or better coverage far outpaces the percentage of people actually online, thus underscoring the need to address the other barriers” [Resource]. Access to electricity is also a major problem for many developing nations, and underscores the need for parallel developments. Whereby a good number of of ISP’s mainly provide coverage in urban areas, for the few who reach rural areas costs can be exponentially higher -- yet another hurdle to connectivity.

b.    Cost: The issue of affordability is another a major challenge. Just because the infrastructure is in place and an area technically has access points, residents may not be able to afford service. Even if they can afford some service, they may not be able to afford a high enough speed or enough data to actually use the internet to its full extent. One must also consider the cost of devices to access the internet. Laptops, desktops, and mobile devices with internet capabilities are all expensive, and even minor repairs can cost a great deal. This disproportionately affects low-income individuals and women, who in many cultures must rely upon a male relative for an income. It is important to remember that when discussing the digital divide, cost of access and cost of technology must be considered.

c.    Gender: The net has not always been a safe haven for users, particularly women. The internet drastically increased the spread of inappropriate images, and images shared without women’s consent. It has also led to a huge increase in stalking instances, particularly on social media. In Oct. 2017 it was reported that young women are the most likely demographic to experience extreme harassment. As a result, as many as one fifth of women in developing countries believe it is inappropriate for them to be online. The consequence of this is that women and girls self-censor, reduce participation, or withdraw from platforms and technology they are using all together. Questions of access must address how to change the online culture to be inclusive and non-threatening for women in order to encourage them to pursue online interests such as education and economic opportunities.

d.    Policies: Today, many countries lack effective policies that deal with access and adoption issues. This includes both the policies of governments and of businesses who play a key role in the deployment of internet services. It is imperative that the public and private sectors work together to create multilateral solutions to close the digital divide.

e.    Skills: According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimate (2013), global illiteracy rate was found to be at 15% for adults, which is also a huge barrier to access. In order for previously unconnected individuals to truly utilize the internet, they will need to be taught how and why to use it. Trainers must be available to show learners how to use both their devices and important web platforms.

It is also important to consider the barrier that adoption poses. Even if an individual has access to the internet, he/she may not be willing or able to adopt it. The technological literacy necessary to get online, use it well, and stay safe can feel insurmountable to many, causing them to forgo the tools all together. It is equally necessary to ensure that people both have access to the internet and to someone who can teach them how to use it -- whether a teacher or a child (as children are less likely to fear using a system and more likely to explore it until they figure it out).

By Katie Watson

Katie Watson is the CEO of Watson Wanders, a Youth@IGF Fellow, and the Development Manager at Public Knowledge. Prior to joining Public Knowledge, Katie was a Policy and Program Manager at Next Century Cities, a Google Public Policy Fellow at the Open Technology Institute, and a Policy Analyst Intern at the Benton Foundation. 

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