Bridging the digital divide with human brilliance

Connectivity will empower communities in a digitally inclusive future

Bridging the digital divide is represented by a man with a smartphone crouching by a pile of mangos in front of a mango farm as a mango delivery truck drives to its various destinations.

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Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be unconnected?

For billions of people, connectivity is simultaneously the technology behind the most thrilling experiences and routine tasks. It gives them the power to seek medical advice from anywhere and access education at any time.

Post-COVID-19, this dependence on communication technology is a given. If the pandemic had happened in 2000, according to The World Bank only 6.7 percent of the world would have had internet access. Can you imagine the absolute standstill without remote working and education?

But what has happened to the millions of people still disconnected from this expanding digital infrastructure? For them, being caught in the digital divide remains a daily struggle in a rapidly digitalizing world.

While there are numerous factors involved, including income, age and physical access, where you live plays a big role. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) notes that globally, only 46 percent of people in rural areas are internet users, compared to 82 percent in urban places.

There are solutions to bridging the digital divide. Whether through Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) in Ohio, digitalization in India or future scenarios such as health care in the home, the foundation of global connectivity will be established by networks.

A doctor speaks to an elderly patient on a video call, highlighting a key benefit of digital inclusion.

Truly united states – revitalizing rural communities

The state of Ohio is well known for its big cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. But it’s also home to large rural regions, many of which have been left without broadband access. In 2019, according to the American Immigration Council, 48.7 percent of people living in rural areas in Ohio lacked access to broadband internet. That’s approximately 607,000 people without broadband internet at home.

Megan Kvamme wanted to do something about this. She is the Executive Chairwoman of OhioTT, a telecommunications company with an explicit mission to build broadband into rural communities across the state. The company worked with Winncom Technologies, which designed and delivered a complete FWA solution based on Ericsson Massive MIMO technology.

An establishing shot of Zanesville, Ohio — an intersection is overlooked by a group of buildings and a water tower. Zanesville is a town that was previously affected by the digital divide in education.

“During the pandemic, we would see cars parked in all these parking lots with kids, filled with kids,” she says. “And you would ask people and realize these are kids trying to do home schooling from a car because they don't have access at home. And that was really the beginning of the conversation we had on how we solve this, because people can't live this way. They need education. They need telehealth. And they also need to be connected to one another.”

FWA uses 4G and 5G networks to deliver broadband service to fixed locations. One radio tower can connect to hundreds of houses in its coverage footprint. FWA made it possible for OhioTT to deliver broadband to areas that previously had no other viable connectivity options.

Fixed wireless service will continue to improve as 5G evolves to 5G Advanced and 6G. New spectrum bands will allow for higher capacity, and new technology will extend the range of signals. We see this already with 5G mmWave extended range. This extended range technology has extended the serviceable range of mmwave signals from a few hundred meters to more than 7 km. This brings the reach of high-end fiber-like services even further from the tower – reaching further into underserved and unserved areas.

With improvements on the existing grid, FWA range can be extended and support more homes with digital services. To reach even further out, and to support mobile services, integration of satellite connectivity into 5G and 6G networks would be a powerful complement.

Connecting everyone, over time

Cities and population dense areas are often the first places to benefit from expansive connectivity.

Now, with solutions like Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), rural populations are able to access vital connectivity.

In the future, with Satellite connected smartphones, even those in very remote areas, such as on water or in mountain ranges, can be connected.

Wireless is, to quote Kvamme, “part of the mosaic of connection.” She emphasizes the importance of collaboration when it comes to connecting the unconnected. This includes cooperation with local government, technology companies, and, most importantly, with the people in unconnected communities who are often not heard.

“It's about the joy you hear from a grandparent that gets to meet a newborn who lives far away.”

Megan Kvamme, Executive Chairwoman, OhioTT

When finally connected, people gain access to government services, health care, job opportunities, education and more. Businesses also grow, which has a positive knock-on effect as the communities around them will flourish and prosper, increasing living standards for all.

Kvamme says that the emotional payoff for OhioTT’s work can be immediate.

“In Perry County when we first started to get residents connected, it wasn’t just like turning on the lights, you could feel this energy running through the community. They were getting access to something that they had been not just wanting but needing for so long. And that became a beacon in these rural Ohio communities where suddenly people believed in the possible.”

The ingenuity of India

Far away from Ohio, India is undergoing a dramatic digital transformation, further fueled by a rapid building out of 5G infrastructure. This transformation is largely based on the ‘India Stack’, a digital infrastructure framework built on open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), a set of rules or code that enables different applications to communicate with one another, and digital public goods that enables Indian citizens to digitally access services such as identification, electronic payments and document verification. In turn, these advances boost local economies through the addition of new businesses and the growth of existing ones.

APIs such as the Unified Payment Interface (UPI) have already transformed the way millions of Indians pay for things and transfer money. In 2022 alone, there were 74.05 billion UPI transactions, coming from individuals as well as small, previously unconnected businesses.

In rural India, a mango farmer can now harvest their fresh mangos and sell them directly to commuters at the roadside without the need for physical cash. These quick and easy sales boost their productivity and profit margins by removing the time-consuming task of physically managing their money.

The digitalization of the Indian economy has also kickstarted a vibrant start-up culture. Sriram P H is the co-founder and CEO of DaveAI, an artificial intelligence (AI) start-up that creates digital avatars as well as interactive augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences to help showcase and sell products to potential customers without needing to travel to a physical store.

Sriram P H from DaveAI, which focuses on the digital divide in education, talks with colleagues on laptops sitting around a boardroom table.

Supporting people in remote areas with DaveAI

For example, DaveAI helps people in remote areas to view and purchase items, including massive life purchases like cars, despite there not being a showroom in their area, which saves time and travel costs.

The benefits go beyond the customers to employees as well. Sriram believes connecting the semi-urban areas of India has increased technology-based job opportunities. In turn, this has developed and grown the middle-class demographic with disposable income to spend on goods and services. A flourishing tech ecosystem then fuels the creation of even more start-up companies that employ even more people in these areas.

“We are a 72-strong company today and are predominantly remote, because we are all about digitalization,” he says. “We are headquartered in Bangalore but with resources across 18–20 cities in India and a few employees working out of Africa and Indonesia.”

“In 2017-2018, the influx of smartphones changed the demographic of the Indian consumer, because more than half of the population has a smartphone today

Sriram P H, Co-founder and CEO at DaveAI

The 4G rollout sparked the digital boom in India. Yet there are still gaps. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the share of urban and rural wireless subscribers was 54.82 percent and 45.18 percent respectively at the end of November 2022, with figures of 92.44 percent urban versus 7.56 percent rural for ‘wireline’ subscribers. While growth is happening, these figures still pose a serious gap when almost 70 percent of the population resides in rural places.

Time is truly of the essence when we talk about bridging the digital divide. Without an immediate remedy, an entire generation of children will miss out on crucial years of education, for example.

5G will be key to bringing broadband to the country’s rural and remote homes and villages. In total, GSMA Intelligence analysis suggests that 5G could benefit the Indian economy by USD 455 billion (Rs. 36.4 trillion) between 2023 and 2040. With so much untapped potential in a country renowned for entrepreneurism, there is a very bright future ahead where India will lead with ingenuity powered by connectivity.

FWA and 5G: Unlocking potential

Emerging markets account for close to 40 percent of 5G FWA launches in the last 12 months.

An interactive infographic representing the bridging of the digital divide shows two FWA towers transmitting signals to a series of cubes in an interconnected network as a green bar signifying progress fills.

How universal connectivity will unlock the future

Looking towards 2030, future networks with their faster speeds, lower latencies and greater reliability will continue to expand what’s possible in areas now unconnected. People will be better connected to online government, transportation, financial services and health care, to name just a few possibilities.

A recent Ericsson-commissioned study by management consulting firm Analysys Mason examined the potential economic, consumer and environmental benefits of 5G connectivity in 15 national emerging markets. With regulatory and government support, all 15 countries could benefit from GDP growth between 0.3 and 0.46 percent through 2035. This is transformative.

To reap the maximum benefit, and as technology advances, it is also essential that people understand how it works. One thriving part of the Ericsson Connect to Learn education program is “Ericsson Educate: 5G University” at The Technical University of Sofia in Bulgaria, teaching students about 5G. The program teaches bachelor's and master's degree students a comprehensive course in 5G, including 5G RAN, Cloud and Core technologies.

"This academy will enable our students to work for the best ICT companies, not only in Bulgaria but around the world.”

Agata Manolova, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Telecommunications, Technical University of Sofia

Digitalization will continue to transform every aspect of society. In a recent Perspectives article, Ville Sointu wrote about moving away from physical cash using India as a prime example. He examined how embracing mobile financial services helps to lower corruption, increase the number of taxpayers and improve the simplicity of business transactions. But digital financial services require reliable connectivity that only advanced networks can provide.

Health care is another example. While 20 percent of the U.S. population resides in rural areas, only 11 percent of physicians practice there. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of revenues of most rural hospitals comes from outpatient care. The era of telemedicine is no longer the future; it’s today.

“People, once given the opportunity, especially an educational opportunity, are much, much smarter than people give them credit for,” says Mimi Tam, Senior Director of Engineering at Cradlepoint and Vice Chair of the Next G Alliance’s Green G and Societal and Economic Needs (SEN) working groups. “They can do marvellous, wonderful things and can compete on a level with big companies today, and the outcome is better for everybody right?”

A video featuring Megan and Nunzio who share their insights on the difference connectivity can make, as part of the sixth Perspecties 2023 article "Bridging the digital divide". thumbnail

We must work together to close the digital divide

Bridging the digital divide is not a single task but an ongoing effort in which governments and enterprises must be responsive to local challenges and opportunities.

Countries need to set the connectivity ambition bar as high as possible, rolling out connectivity fast and at scale, such as India is doing with 5G. This has been a clarion call from the global business community to world leaders in recent years.

Ericsson was founded on the belief that communication is a basic human need. The company has worked towards universal connectivity for over 145 years, and we’re excited to see how much further we can go by 2030.

Digital transformation is as important to the 21st century as electrification was to the 20th. What do you imagine to be possible once everyone becomes fully connected in our digital future?

What do you imagine to be possible once everyone becomes fully connected in our digital future?

Groups of people talk to each other as they sit on blue benches shaped like speech boxes to ask: what is the digital divide?


With additional thanks to:
Mimi Tam, Per Lindberg, Gustav Wikström, Peter Linder, Ruchika Batra, James McVeigh, Hanna Erlandsson

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