Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have permeated practically all aspects of life. Just a decade ago, in some parts of the globe, prioritizing access to ICTs was considered a luxury. Today, it is widely acknowledged that investing in affordable, universal and unconditional access to ICTs is necessary to drive progress on global priorities, in particular, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It naturally follows that various assumptions, theories, hopes and even frustrations are part and parcel of this "digitalization" takeoff. Various successes and failures of the transformative potential of ICTs have shown that the technologies themselves are neither positive, negative nor necessarily neutral. Instead, new technologies are yet another manifestation of the fact that political, civic, economic and social empowerment are foundational building blocks, whether for the Global Goals or for hyperlocal visions and expectations of prosperity.
ICTs are advancing at a dizzying pace, but access to the Internet, particularly through the World Wide Web, is perhaps the most critical element for unlocking the potential of new technologies. The SDGs rightfully acknowledged the vital role that ICTs can play in their achievement. SDG 9, target C, in particular, calls for universal access to ICTs, especially in least developed countries, by 2020--a matter of months from now. It is expected that half of the world's population will be online in 2019 (initially estimated for 2017). (1) Of the approximately 3.9 billion people who remain offline, an overwhelming majority reside in the Global South and 2 billion are women. Nine out of ten youth who are offline live in Africa or Asia and the Pacific. (2)
At the current rate of progress towards SDG 9, target C, only 16 per cent of the world's poorest countries and 53 per cent of the entire world will be connected by 2020, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). (3) The Alliance further notes that the impact of this connectivity lag will "undermine global development across the board, contributing to lost opportunities for economic growth and denying hundreds of millions access to online education, health services, political voice, and much, much more." (4)
Mobile phones are widely considered the entry point into the digital economy, and "one of the most far-reaching technologies in history.... While mobile connectivity is spreading quickly, it is not spreading equally," notes the GSMA, an association representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide. (5) Disparities in access and use of mobile phones and the Internet follow urban, rural, gender and geographical divides.
As an illustration, the GSMA notes that "in rural areas the cost of building and operating mobile infrastructure can be twice as expensive compared to urban areas, with revenues up to 10 times smaller." (6) This would disincentivize telecommunications service providers from prioritizing these areas, which are also traditionally left behind on other infrastructure and development fronts.