The role of telecommunications in reducing the digital divide for an inclusive society

May 18, 2021

Fredy Rodríguez

1. Introduction

The promotion of equitable access to telecommunications is closely related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and becomes a tool to build a more inclusive society and reduce the impact of external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2030 Agenda highlights target 9.c. “Significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in LDCs by 2020”, seeking that all communities have universal access to the Internet. It also proposes to empower women through target 5.b “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women”.

2. Evolution of telecommunications

Over time, information technologies have undergone considerable changes, this is mainly due to the integration of new technologies in the world of communications. Technological innovation has led the population to appropriate different mechanisms and ways of communicating. In 1865, the foundation of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was celebrated with the purpose of facilitating connectivity and promoting the use of the telegraph, being the main communication mechanism of the time. Communications today depend largely on Internet access and application development!

In the history of communications, the 19th century made a difference in the way we communicate. The use of the telegraph and the implementation of the morse code made a leap to remote messaging by being considered as an alternative to traditional mail, which was booming at the time. It was at the beginning of the 20th century, with the birth of the telephone, that the sector was transformed, moving from messages to the possibility of direct communication.

Years later, the telephone was transformed: It went from being manual to being automatic, increasing its potential to bring families closer together and allow companies to be more competitive. In the 80s the mobile phone was born, and with the installation of antennas and satellites, it opened the possibility of connecting people instantly, quickly and constantly. Currently, the implementation of technologies allows browsing through the Internet and its relationship with the web.

The speed of innovation in the sector has led to differences in making telecommunications accessible to any community. This is reflected in the limitations on the knowledge of new technologies, but also on the costs of goods or services. 

3. Digital divide: Gender and COVID-19 

To better understand what the digital divide refers to, we consider the definition given by ALADI: “The technological distance between individuals, families, companies and geographic areas in their opportunities in accessing information and communication technologies, as well as in the use of the Internet for a wide range of activities”. Although this definition was raised in 2003, it has evolved. Technology plays a leading role in mitigating impacts such as the COVID-19 pandemic and meeting SDG target 9c.

According to the ITU in 2019:

  • About 72% of urban households globally had Internet access, while in rural areas this percentage only reached 38% of households.
  • The region with the largest digital divide was Africa. Only 28% of urban households and 6% of rural households had Internet access.
  • In America, 74% of urban households and 50% of rural households had Internet access. One of the reasons for these results is that countries such as the United States and Canada were part of the measurement.

Regarding access to computer equipment, ITU notes that:

  • 63% of urban and 25% of rural households had access to computers.
  • Africa was again the region with the greatest limitations to access equipment, with 17% in urban areas and only 2% in rural areas.
  • These figures reflect the digital gap that exists, especially between urban and rural areas, on accessibility to this type of services, and highlights the need to deepen investments that allow technologies to be brought to the most remote areas of the countries.

The challenge of the double gap: Digital and Gender

As mentioned in SDG target 5b, telecommunications help promote the empowerment of women. However, there are still challenges in ensuring that technologies offer equal conditions to men and women, especially in some regions.

The ITU report (2019) highlights that:

  • There is an internet access gap between men and women of 7 percentage points, given that men have 55% more access to the Internet compared to women. 
  • Gender parity, which should ideally be at 1.0, has changed negatively between 2013 and 2019 in the African and Arab States:
    • Africa fell from 0.79 to 0.54.
    • The Arab States went from 0.81 to 0.77- 
    • According to the IDB, in the Latin American and Caribbean region during 2017 and 2018, the percentage of Internet access in the region was 63% for men and 57% for women, while access and use of mobile phones was 83% for men and 80% for women.

These data allow us to realize that it is necessary to take actions to promote a greater appropriation of technology and access to the Internet by women as a mechanism for entrepreneurship and changes in family dynamics. 

Telecommunications in response to COVID-19

The pandemic catapulted the use of telecommunications and highlighted the need for higher quality services for the development of work and educational activities as well as relationships with family and friends. Since the world was not prepared to assume a greater Internet demand, companies began contingency plans to expand their outreach. 

In the first half of 2020, the use of international bandwidth increased by 38%, becoming the largest increase since the Internet existed. Due to the pandemic, the debate about the possibility of working remotely, receiving virtual education and other modalities that involve access to the Internet has increased. Therefore, it is necessary that no one is left behind on access to telecommunications.

4. Final thoughts 

The closing of digital gaps has been transforming society constantly. Telecommunications is a sector that reacts to the needs that arise, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is necessary to support the processes of national and local governments to universalize access to technological tools and infrastructure for the entire population that contribute to the possibilities of closing digital, gender and any other related gaps.

Although progress has been made to reduce the gaps that affect telecommunications, a debt persists in the most vulnerable regions of the world to make their services and products more equitable, considering local contexts and the investments required by both the private and the public sectors.

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