When Mark Zuckerberg told the Mobile World Congress this week that digital executives ought to prioritize convincing more people to start spending money on data, the cynical among us might have snickered that the Facebook mogul was merely looking to open the spigot on new profit streams.
But those who listened carefully—and those who saw a recent report from The Economist—can see that Zuckerberg has a point. For one thing, he wasn’t just shilling for Facebook; he was also speaking on behalf of internet.org, an organization created to offer low-cost or free access to online services such as search, messaging, and Wikipedia. The theory behind the initiative is simple: The internet is not just there to get folks addicted to Farmville; rather, it’s now capable of increasing people’s prosperity and health—and in the process, benefitting societies as a whole.
Conversely, those who aren’t connected are in real danger of falling behind. In the past, some might have perceived the biggest disadvantage to a lack of connectivity to be that we have to go to the mall rather than do Christmas shopping online. But The Economist’s Intelligence Unit put it in far more dire terms in its report “Redefining the Digital Divide,” which pointed out that tens of millions of people in some of the world’s leading nations still lack broadband access.
The Economist researchers argue, however, that we should no longer think of the divide merely in terms of fibers and cables. People who lack such access may now be missing out, for example, on key government services or the ability to hunt for a job or advance a career. Internet access could help residents of developing countries avoid engaging with public officials who might exploit them financially. “Policy-makers and executives now recognize that those left behind, including in rural areas, are falling ever further behind in a digital society,” the report says.
The researchers surveyed 218 government policy-makers and telecommunications executives who were familiar with digital issues in their respective countries. There was disagreement on the cause of the divide and the necessary fixes: whether stronger regulation is necessary, or if investment should come from government or private industry. But on one question all participants were unanimous: “that ‘digital skills’—defined as ‘a person’s ability to access, adapt and create knowledge through the use of information and communication technologies (ICT)’—are important today, and will only become more so in the future.”
Soon 90% of all jobs will require digital literacy, the European Commission asserted. One World Bank study “predicts an increase in economic growth by 1.38% in low- and middle- income countries for every 10% increase in broadband penetration,” The Economist report says. Denmark has made online government service delivery legally mandatory by 2015, at an estimated annual savings of 160 million euros. Yet according to an American survey, about one-half of people who don’t use the internet say they’re just not interested, which suggests they don’t know how essential digital connectivity now is. Income levels and affordability are other issues, all of which explains why access has now outpaced usage.
What to do about it? For now, the best solution may lie in targeted initiatives like internet.org. On a more grassroots level, Project Silverline calls for the donation of used 3GS, 4 and 4S iPhones and chargers that will be refurbished with specially developed senior-friendly apps for Singapore’s elderly. For every phone donated, SingTel will sponsor the talk time and data plan for a year. Japan’s NTT DoCoMo runs a similar program. Similarly, organizations like Connected Nation are working with local governments to provide online of obvious value—like online driver’s license renewal as an alternative to an hours-long wait at the DMV.
Regardless of how you might view Facebook’s involvement, a realistic look at the digital divide leads to one irrevocable conclusion: When more people benefit from digital access, we all do.