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FEATURE STORY March 29, 2018

Building Connections to Four Billion People


Photo: Curt Carnemark / World Bank


  • Internet access is a vital route to attaining the SDGs
  • The unconnected are missing out on opportunities with every day that passes
  • How to connect them is one of digital development’s ultimate challenges

The challenge is clear: How to connect 4 billion people to the internet and the opportunities, jobs, and access to markets it offers?  90 percent of those 4 billion live in low- and middle-income countries, where an enabling environment, innovative financing, business models, and new technological ideas are the key next steps in building the infrastructure to make digital development possible.

“Digital connectivity is a critical foundation for achieving the sustainable development goals that aim to bring affordable and universal internet access by 2020. It has become a precondition for people to participate in government and society, allowing countries to implement creative solutions for health, education and financial services to the poor and remote communities. It is also integrating countries in the increasingly-connected global digital economy,” said Jane Treadwell, a Practice Manager in the World Bank’s Digital Development unit.

Targeting the Places the Market Doesn’t Reach

To discuss new ways to meet the growing demand for wireless broadband services, the World Bank’s Digital Development Partnership (DDP) hosted a workshop with its country partners.  People from government and regulatory agencies, from the private sector, DDP partners and broadband experts from countries as varied as the Kyrgyz Republic, Nigeria, India and Nicaragua, among others, joined the conversation. The focus of the workshop was on bringing broadband to the places and people that the market cannot or will not reach.

Financing broadband connectivity was the first discussion topic at the workshop. Recent experience shows the growing popularity of public-private partnerships (PPPs), and the advantages and disadvantages of various forms of financing, ranging from private, public, community, and vendor in extending middle and last mile connections to get internet to the underserved. In many small, landlocked, and fragile countries, and in rural areas, high financial and operating costs mean private sector investment is small or nonexistent, and the government often lacks the means to build infrastructure on its own. Sporadic electricity supply and high costs can also present a challenge.

To address financing issues and new technology to reach the 4 billion underserved, DDP is preparing a new global knowledge report called “Innovative Business Models for Expanding Fiber-Optic Networks and Closing the Access Gaps.” Input from workshop participants will guide and inform the final report.

Options: From Satellites to Balloons and Drones

The report looks at previous business models and their successes and failures in different countries under different pressures. In addition to identifying new business ideas, the report looks at alternative technologies, like mobile networks, satellites, TV white space, balloons and drones, to extend middle and last mile access.  Spectrum polices and management will also be part of the report, which aims to provide a practical set of options to guide policymakers as they make key decisions.

“Encouraging countries to try new business models,” said Doyle Gallegos, Global Lead Broadband Access for All at the World Bank, “by testing new financing, technology and regulations, that pushes governments to innovate. And we need to push the private sector to think about the role of government-- taxes, rights-of-way. That encourages a public-private dialogue about bringing low-cost bandwidth to the village level.”

Most of the broadband development of the last decade targeted bigger cities with relatively high density. This profit-driven approach has widened the gap between the cities and rural areas, low- and high-income countries. Now, closing this digital divide, bringing the 4 billion into the digital age, is a vital concern.  And it is not just about access, though that is key. Affordability is an issue for the poor. Buying just 1 gigabyte of data in Africa costs an average citizen 18% of his or her monthly income. Internet exclusion, whether it be physical, economic or social, limits potential; access has the capability to transform lives and livelihoods.