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The Global Digital Divide: Past, Present, and Future

Date & Time

Oct. 30, 2020
1:00pm – 2:30pm ET


Live Webcast


The Global Digital Divide: Past, Present, and Future examined the changing nature of the digital divide challenge and what we have learned (and will have to do next) in order to envision and deploy solutions—now and in the future. 

Ten years ago, the conversation around the 'digital divide' was centered on internet access around the world. That issue hasn’t gone away and remains deeply important. Yet today, the digital divide is not just in the context of internet access, but in relation to what connectivity enables; for example, the digital infrastructure to mobilize human capital at a distance.  This panel broadened the digital divide discussion to include regions, such as Africa and the Middle East, that are all too often overlooked while addressing the evolution of the digital divide(s) globally and the importance of addressing the main drivers behind current and future iterations of these divides going forward.

Speaker Quotes

    1. “As we all know, over the past few decades, digital technologies have dramatically transformed the societies and economies around the world, and of course, the Arab region included. And today, they become an essential part of our modern culture and they cover almost all aspects of our lives. But in the Arab region–– I mean there are so many developing countries–– we know the variance between developed countries and developing countries and we know the variance between the regions of the world in terms of benefitting from the added values of these technologies, which basically create what we call the digital divide.... Now, if we look into numbers in our region, we noticed unfortunately that almost every single indicator shows that there is a significant difference between developed and developing countries in terms of accessing and using digital technologies.”
    2. “Half of the Arab countries, in terms of development of the digital infrastructure, are below the world average. Which takes us to the digital divide in our region (in the Arab region) or more widely in the Middle East and North Africa region, and the problem that has a geographic, demographic, and socioeconomic dimension. And not only that–– it also has different types. It has a divide at the local level, at the national level, at the regional, and the gender divide, the age divide, the income divide. And the digital gender divide is of high importance to the region… I would like to bring in the discussion on the importance of gender equality in the diaspora of digitization…The MENA region has the highest gender gap and if development keeps at the same pace, we will need, in this region, more than 140 years to bridge this gap, which is alarming. And the main areas we have to focus on are economic participation and political participation and technologies. Digital technologies offer key opportunities to enhance the performance [of workers].”
    3. The private sector plays an important role in bridging the digital divide and bridging the gender digital divide, but not on its own. Rather, from the development perspective, hand in hand with government and civil society, which in many cases -- in the Arab region at least, and to my knowledge, in most of the regions in the world -- play an important role in enhancing [digital literacy]. So, what role can they play?... We  need to focus on increasing affordability, because one of the main internet adoption barriers in developing countries and our region is affordability. A large group of people cannot really access the internet because of the high cost involved; the cost of smartphones, good laptops, computers are expensive, despite technology being a basic need… There is a need for empowering the users. When we talk about empowering the users, we’re talking about building the capacities and the capabilities to see the full potential of digital technologies and their impact.”
    4. “Globally, [with] private sector investments, there’s a huge difference between the fund investments that the private sector makes in startups that are founded and headed by men compared to those that are founded or headed by women.”
    1. "Undeniably, what we have noticed is that there are two major problems regardless of the technology. One is that there needs to be, worldwide, a clear and stable regulatory environment in order to bridge this digital divide. And the second piece is that all innovation and technology that we use to bridge the digital divide needs to be affordable and accessible to people to use them so they can think whatever amount of payments they are making for the services they are getting are justifiable."
    2. "[The COVID-19 pandemic] presents a significant need for those working on the broadband gap and bridging the digital divide to move quickly to advance infrastructure, tools, and services, to connect as many people [...]. The impact of COVID-19 has shown that the African countries’ development can either be a really massive barrier to development or it can also spark lights of fire to view this as an important learning curve for innovation, investment chains, policy, and reform policy [...]. We have learned that it is now a luxury rather than a necessity to have a technology policy that fast-tracks the adoption of technologies [...]. We need to upgrade our latest infrastructure [and] we need to connect those areas that don’t have access today to participate today in this digital economy. On top of that, we need to use technology to understand the pandemic itself and also address the issues that are coming from the pandemic."
    3. "Specifically from the private sector point of view, we need to continue research on innovative technologies. When I say innovative technologies, including how we use the spectrum as is. For example, in the models that we follow today, the spectrum is a finite resource. The spectrum is scarce and it's a finite resource obviously, but it is scarce and it’s not enough for others. But we need to have a shift in mindset; instead of having that mindset view the spectrum as a resource, we need to think of the spectrum as a dynamic resource and as a tool that we can use the spectrum to have ubiquitous services."
    1. “We’re living through a period of great, fantastic new technology that’s creating enormous wealth. But the history of technology is that when you get these technology revolutions, at least in their first iterations, they often exacerbate (rather than decrease) inequality. And they’re generally counterproductive for global liberalism as well. So, if you think about railroads in the 1800’s, powering growth in the US and other economies, it was really great if you were living in the nodes where the railroad tracks came together. But it wasn’t so great if you were living in small towns off those nodes, where economies and societies were devastated.”
    2. “What barriers now remain? My answer, with the best evidence I can muster from some natural experiments, is language. So, in colloquial terms, you can standardize parts for the auto industry and ship them around the world. But it’s much harder to do that with complex ideas and tacit knowledge, even when you and I do speak the same language. And if you and I speak really different languages, and we have to use slow and expensive and often inaccurate human translators -- we’ve all experienced this at one time or another -- it’s extremely clunky. That’s a transaction cost that limits economic exchange and exchange of ideas. So how do we lower that barrier? Well, the answer, in theory, is of course machine translation… except when you look under the hood, the technology that drives machine translation isn’t universal and how it works really matters, because what we think of as machine translation today is not universal and it’s not going to become that any time soon.
    3.  “There are lots and lots of different ways to price different parts of the value chain, and I would like to see the firm’s experiment with all of those things, because we don’t really, really have a tangible -- I mean a granular grasp -- on how people would like to monetize from their or pay for access. So, let’s create a whole bunch of different ways to do it. If you’ve recently bought an iPhone 12, you recognize there’s a very small number of possible ways to actually pay for that, and there’s a lot of opacity on what the actual business model is. So, let’s create more ways, and make it real transparent and do the best we can in that regard. That’s a form of innovation that’s as important as anything having to do with technology.”

Hosted By

Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) serves as the bridge between technologists, policymakers, industry, and global stakeholders.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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