COVID-19 crisis accentuating the need to bridge digital divides, says OECD

In a future where jobs, education, healthcare and even social interactions may depend on digital technologies, failing to ensure widespread digital access risks deepening inequalities and hindering countries’ efforts to emerge stronger from the pandemic....

The pandemic has raised the bar in the digital world, improved internet connectivity and skills have helped many countries cope with the economic and health crisis from COVID-19.  

Students with at-home Internet access began attending class remotely; employees started working from home; and numerous firms adopted digital business models to maintain operations and preserve some revenue flow. As people adapt to living and working online, there is an increasing need to close the digital divides that risk leaving some people and firms worse off than others in a post-COVID world, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

 Despite the fact that Internet providers have reported increases of 60% in traffic since the start of the pandemic, failing to ensure widespread and trustworthy digital access and effective use risks deepening inequalities, and may hinder countries’ efforts to emerge stronger from the pandemic, the OECD’s latest Digital Economy Outlook has revealed. 

OECD Deputy Secretary-General Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, stated “Digital technologies have helped our economies and societies to avoid a complete standstill during the COVID-19 crisis, and have enabled us to learn more about the virus, accelerate the search for a vaccine and track the development of the pandemic,”  

While launching the report at a virtual event he said: “The crisis has also accentuated our dependence on digital technologies and exposed the reality of the digital divides between and within countries. We are at a turning point in the digital transformation, and the shape of our economies and societies post-COVID will depend on how well we can progress and narrow these divides.” 

An example of this disconnect shows the share of fibre in fixed broadband subscriptions in OECD countries ranges from 82% in Korea and 79% in Japan to below 5% in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Israel and the United Kingdom, with high-speed connections often sparse in rural areas. OECD countries count roughly twice the level of high-speed mobile Internet subscriptions per inhabitant and three times the level of fixed broadband subscriptions as non-OECD countries. 

Higher connectivity the key to Higher Productivity?

Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, only a quarter of firms with over 10 employees across the OECD made e-commerce sales, while a third of firms had purchased cloud computing services and more than half had a social media presence. 

Higher levels of connectivity enabled many businesses and households in the OECD to easily transition online after governments implemented national lockdowns in a bid to stem the initial spread of COVID-19. The report found that in France, for example, high amounts of fibre subscriptions allowed businesses to operate remotely following a national lockdown order in early 2020, and industries with the highest levels of teleworking were able to maintain business activity at 70% to 80% of pre-pandemic levels. 

The digital transformation was gaining significant traction prior to COVID-19 as an increasing number of governments place digital strategies at the heart of their policies. Surging demand for bandwidth-intensive communication services from e-commerce, teleworking, online social activities and increased cross-border collaboration by governments and academics should spur further progress. Today’s reliance on digital solutions has also added urgency to concerns around privacy and security by inadvertently creating an accessible environment for cybercriminals. 

Social gaps driving Digital Divide? 

If the pandemic, has taught us anything it is that digital access is becoming one of the most forefront social issues of our time. Strong communication infrastructures and services have become essential in the last twelve months. The report found that addressing rural/urban divides in access to broadband and upgrading networks to the next evolution of fixed and wireless broadband, and enhancing access to and the sharing of data can help spur economic and social benefits. 

In 2019 the OECD found that the share of people using e-government services stood at 58%, up from 43% in 2010 and in addition, the share of adults using the Internet ranges from over 95% in some OECD countries to less than 70% in others. Although 58% of those aged 50-74 used the Internet daily in 2019 – up from only 30% in 2010 – this remains well below the average share of daily Internet users aged 16-24 (the so-called “digital natives”), which was close to 95%. 

Gaps in Internet access or usage due to age or income level mean uneven access to public information and services, especially critical during a pandemic. In a future where jobs, education, healthcare and even social interactions may depend on digital technologies, failing to ensure widespread digital access risks deepening inequalities and hindering countries’ efforts to emerge stronger from the pandemic, the report says. 

Governments can strengthen broadband deployment by promoting private investment and competition, encouraging infrastructure sharing and setting minimum levels of coverage for rural areas in spectrum auctions, the report says. 

To meet the current surge in demand for network connectivity, the report recommends measures like temporarily releasing additional spectrum or approving commercial transactions that put unused spectrum into service, upgrading interconnection capacity between networks and finding ways to encourage broadband providers to deploy more fibre deeper into networks. 

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