Digital transformation during the pandemic: bridging divides or increasing inequities between countries?

Digital transformation during the pandemic: bridging divides or increasing inequities between countries?

By Arshiya Bhayana '22

COVID-19 pandemic called for an immediate transformation of nearly every aspect of lives across the world, reimagining technology’s role in how we work, learn, and live. The Pandemic exposed a long-standing issue: billions of people around the world remained without the right to internet access. Technology, which was meant to be an equalizer and not a source of division, is now said to be creating deep divides between the haves and have nots after the digital transformation that followed COVID-19.

Significant aspects of this rapid digital transformation were made easier by digital infrastructure which was stronger in developed countries as compared to developing countries, especially many rural and low-income communities around the world that lacked reliable and affordable internet access. According to the Federal Communications Commission, in the US itself, 97% of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed internet as compared to 65% in rural areas. In total, nearly 30 million Americans cannot fully benefit from the rapid digital transformation that took place during the pandemic. This statistic is all the more alarming when you contextualize the US as the richest developed country with a GDP of USD 20.94 trillion. For a country this developed, a statistic of 10% of the population being unable to have access to reliable and affordable internet sheds light on the far more significant inequities in developing economies.

While the internet penetration rate is 87% in developed countries, the internet penetration rates are at an alarming 47% in developing countries and 19% in the least developed countries. These divides have massive ramifications from a very young age itself, especially given the extent of remote learning during the pandemic. Students from less developed countries with low rates of internet penetration in general, or students from low-income backgrounds in developed countries who do not have access to affordable internet, are unable to access equipment needed to attend virtual classes. Without reliable internet, these economic inequalities will continue to grow around the world even after COVID, as it perpetuates the cycle of being left behind economically, then academically, and then economically as low-income backgrounds are unable to gain access to the same resources and opportunities and education as their counterparts who are able to afford reliable internet.

Source: Statista

Aside from the obvious ways in which lack of access to technology increases inequalities between communities, another key aspect to consider is the role of technology in political engagement. Scholars argue that, as technology develops, and the costs of information retrieval and communication in general decrease, political participation will also become less costly and thus more of a viable option for more people. In contrast, if communities lack access to technology, the costs of retrieving information and communication, and actively participating in politics, remains a challenge. Studies have explored the relationship between internet usage and civic engagement, highlighting the need to expand broadband access to bridge divides between countries and specifically socially or economically marginalized communities while also aiming for an increase in political engagement across the world. Results of several studies looking at the correlation between internet access and political engagement highlight the urgent need for policymakers to collaborate with the telecommunications industry and the local government to continue to provide both Internet access and training to the communities part of developing economies with weaker digital infrastructure.

World Economic Forum  has advocated for the need for building 5G infrastructure to bridge the digital inequities: “By investing in emerging technologies like 5G wireless communications technology, governments and the private sector can come together to address the inequities in our communities and create meaningful, permanent change to guarantee all citizens have access to the technology they need for work and school.” Currently, efforts to develop 5G networks have been fairly segmented around the world, with some regions seeing little to no 5G deployment at all, while others are in the testing phases to assess whether the infrastructure is ready to support a full-fledged 5G roll-out. Policymakers and experts in the field of IT suggest that a public-private collaboration will be necessary to pull the cloud and IT industries into dramatically expanding the technology system that can deliver the innovation and benefits that come with 5G. This would require governments working with companies by sharing risk and creating incentives to lower the costs of deployment of 5G networks, all while allowing for the transition to the next iteration of technologies like 6G.

Pew Research Center states how the pandemic has reshaped internet connectivity to be one of the most critical components to an equitable society. Although several companies have adopted a work-from-home culture, some industries, in particular education, will unlikely work remotely indefinitely. Therefore, it is critical for governments in the developing world to invest strategically in developing digital infrastructure and expanding access to 5G in order to increase digital inclusion and keep up with the digital transformation that was accelerated by COVID.

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