Even though mobile phones are almost global, only about 12 percent of people in emerging economies have data connection. What is even more surprising is that 4.3 billion people still do not have access to the Internet.
These unconnected people are living in countries that have underdeveloped economies with digital infrastructure that is lacking as well. However, there is huge growth potential if there could only be connectivity. I believe that with the right ICT and strong policies that are in support of innovation and fair competition, these countries can connect their people to the rest of the word and narrow the digital divide.
Most importantly, a broadband infrastructure with wider coverage and faster speeds must be developed. These countries need to see that broadband is the critical foundation of national infrastructure that will only increase economic growth and raise the standard of living.
One way that the infrastructure could be built is by Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). Malaysia has already done this – regulators created a framework that ensured competition with equal access. The result? The cost of digital entry for citizens was decreased, fostering innovation and competition among service providers – very successful, in my opinion.
While these networks are being launched, telecom operators need to keep costs low. They could do this by sharing optical fiber and infrastructure with power and utility companies. When you take a look at the deployment cost, burying the fiber optic cables and conduits underground is usually 40 percent, but can be up to 70 percent of the total cost. These high costs make the Internet access more expensive to its end users.
There should also be new mechanisms for allocating radio spectrum that can increase supply while also reducing the cost. This is actually a very important issue because most of these countries will have to increase their available spectrum (the basis for high-speed mobile broadband) from 50 to 100 percent over the next five years.
Something else that would help are the development of more applications to aid their lifestyle. Apps are what drive the demand for connectivity and create new business models. M-KOPA for example, allows Kenyan households with no electricity to purchase their very own solar power system and make daily micro-payments. If the government can create a level playing field that lets entrepreneurs to devise new solutions without having to worry about monopolistic competitors or too much regulation, there could be great benefits to local users.
It will take governments, operators, technology providers and application developers, but we can connect everyone in the world and we will.