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Connecting the unconnected: closing the digital divide in rural areas

Yehia El Amine

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digital divide

Come rain or shine, it has become the standard norm for us to enjoy uninterrupted access to the Internet to keep us consistently connected, entertained, informed and working. 

But not all of us are and will experience this right away, especially when it comes to 5G

More than 700 million people in rural areas around the world still cannot make phone calls or access the network, according to GSMA statistics. By the end of 2018, nearly 400,000 villages around the world had no network coverage. 

The digital divide between cities and the countryside is widening, especially the gap between remote and urban areas.

The fifth generation of networks in rural areas and the elimination of the digital divide isn’t a new phenomenon; closing the digital gap is highly needed not only to deliver Internet access at broadband speeds for rural consumers, but also allows for the creation of a smart countryside to match the emergence of smart cities. 

While coverage-related challenges have been plaguing rural areas around the world, there’s also the problem of penetration for fixed broadband. In the U.S., only 63 percent had access to rural broadband, versus 75 percent in urban, and 79 percent in suburban areas, according to U.S.-based think tank, Pew Research Center (PRC).

“The mobile broadband rural penetration was 71 percent versus 79 percent for both urban and suburban areas,” the report added. 

Closing or reducing the digital divide requires both coverage and penetration-related initiatives – especially in a world where demand has changed because of the pandemic.

Governments, telcos, and the private have taken note of this, and have already started to fight back against this connectivity blackout.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established the 5G Fund for Rural America, which will make available up to $9 billion in federal subsidies over 10 years to bring voice and 5G broadband services to unserved rural areas.  

“The FCC continues to take steps to facilitate the deployment of next-generation 5G services nationwide, it is also working to ensure that rural America is not left behind,” the Commission said in a statement back in October. 

The funds are expected to support the deployment of 5G networks that will not only provide rural areas with critical access to telehealth, telework, remote learning opportunities, and precision agriculture, but will also drive job creation and economic growth.  

Across the Pacific Ocean, South Korea’s government in partnership with the country’s top three mobile operators have launched a task force that aims to expand 5G coverage into rural areas of the country.

“The task force has the main goal of allowing roaming network sharing among SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus in areas where population density is low,” South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT said in a statement. 

Under the terms of this collaboration agreement, each mobile carrier will set up communication networks in designated areas, which can be shared with the other two, after they reach an agreement on the issue within the next six months.

According to the statement, South Korea’s 5G subscribers reached 7.86 million in July, up 487,190 from the previous month, accounting for 11.3 percent of the country’s 69.8 million mobile subscriptions.

The three operators launched 5G technology and services back in April 2019, and 5G networks are available mostly in large cities. The government previously said that the carriers had already deployed over 115,000 5G base stations

While in China, Huawei released the RuralStar solution back in 2017, which provides network coverage for over 20 million people in rural areas across the country. 

In parallel, Huawei later launched the simplified RuralStar Lite solution in 2019 for rural areas with small populations.

“This solution not only allows 100 million people in rural areas to access the network, but also improves people’s livelihood and assists enterprises in fulfilling their social responsibilities,” Huawei said in a statement.

While connecting the unconnected has been on the menu for a long time coming, the impact that 5G will deliver to rural areas will be transformative for the world’s countryside. 

Let’s jump right in. 

Remote education

Connecting rural schools to the Internet has been a long-time priority for many lawmakers across the world. While these educational institutions have sought alternatives, such as opening up after school hours for students who need high-speed internet access for their homework. 

This model provided relief when the needs were limited to homework.   

The Covid-19 pandemic has put rural broadband needs under the microscope, widening the scope from homework, to bringing the entire educational experience online. 

These gaps not only prevent rural inhabitants from education but increases the already growing rates of the brain drain, as talented students seek better opportunities outside the countryside, driven by their ambition to earn a college degree. 

Which is why there needs to be immediate focus on education in these areas to reverse the urbanization trend. 

Introducing 5G connectivity within these areas will not only close the digital divide, but will allow small businesses to prosper, and create more, which would attract investments into a plethora of opportunities such as smart farming. 

So as the saying goes, “build it, and they will come.” 

Remote work 

In urban areas, the transition to working from home pretty much happened overnight. Any information worker with a laptop and a video conferencing app could leverage their home broadband and start working from home.

This transition wasn’t as smooth as the rest of the world, due partially to fewer professionals in rural areas who work in digital industries, while the already existing broadband network supporting a family of workers and students at home had become bottlenecked. 

Thus, enhancing the areas’ digital infrastructure can have a hidden benefit.  

“Rural communities must consider the role their broadband infrastructure will play in attracting digital workers. Educated professionals can pursue a digital career without moving to a city in the first place,” a report by Swedish telecom giant Ericsson said. 

According to the report, Digital professionals are packing up their urban life and finding a better lifestyle in rural communities.

“Any community with aspirations to attract both these types of professionals and tap into a new “brain-train” needs excellent broadband infrastructure,” the report added. 

Thus, digital infrastructure will be the decisive factor for anyone looking to settle down in rural areas.

Telehealth

There is a myriad of obstacles facing healthcare in rural areas to begin with. 

First, its attracting educated doctors and medical professionals to relocate in areas with limited career paths. 

Weirdly enough, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the supply aspect of things since medical professionals have championed remote consultations overnight. And as efforts of connecting such areas to the rest of the world increase, these communities could be on the heels of leveraging telehealth to its maximum potential. 

With the worldwide rollout of 5G, rural communities could be the prime target for both public and private sectors to heavily invest in medical and surgical facilities to provide healthcare for inhabitants. 

Closing the digital divide will require heaps of work, investments, and coverage but the emergence of the fifth generation of networks will prove to be a strong weapon in the fight to bring fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure. 

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Yehia is an investigative journalist and editor with extensive experience in the news industry as well as digital content creation across the board. He strives to bring the human element to his writing.

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Impact

Digital inclusion: what is being done for vulnerable members of society?

Karim Hussami

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As the wave of digital transformation carries us to exciting new heights of progress in business and personal development, industries must stop to consider the challenges of digital access faced by more vulnerable groups in society.

In this era of rapid technological advancements, enterprises are realizing the need for greater initiatives to encourage growth and participation of all customers, so that no one is left behind. “It’s time for the mobile industry to take steps to ensure our products and services are accessible, unlocking the power of connectivity so that all people thrive,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA.

GSMA driving digital inclusion

Industry organization GSMA has launched the “Principles for Driving the Digital Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities” aiming at encouraging the mobile industry to help close the mobile disability gap.

The industry has developed guidelines with the help of disability and accessibility experts and mobile operators, outlining three regulations to increase digital inclusion for disabled people. These principles have been devised to ensure disability inclusion is adopted at every level of an organization, identifying how to reach and serve people with disabilities and delivering inclusive products and services.

One of the solutions proposed is to combine multiple assistive technologies in a single device, making mobile phones cost-effective tools to facilitate inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities.

However, persons with disabilities are less likely to own smartphones and use mobile internet than persons without disabilities, according to a research by GSMA. The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates that 80% of persons with disabilities live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), which presents long-term challenges for initiatives that aim to break digital access barriers in under-resourced settings.

Innovation to help serve people with disabilities

In addition, some of the ways for an organization to reach and serve communities include collecting and analyzing data to better understand how disabled customers are using services. Conducting frequent consumer research to find out if the services are meeting the needs of customers with disabilities.

According to GSMA, several other options are present to enhance the access for disabled people and increase the chances of accessing digital platforms by developing handsets focusing on content, as well as creating products and services that are affordable and accessible to all. “Putting provisions in place such as customer service advisors trained in teaching customers how to use such devices as potential ways to ensure the delivery of inclusive products and services.”

Closing the digital access gap is no easy feat; it requires collective collaboration and long-term planning from governments and industries alike. GSMA-driven initiatives will help raise awareness, reduce inequalities and drive change.  

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Impact

Crowdfunding: A silent hero in the Covid-19 era

Yehia El Amine

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Crowdfunding

As the world preps itself for a second wave of Covid-19 and vaccine development continues, one cannot deny the hardships humanity has faced this year.

Businesses of all shapes and sizes struggled, economies slowed, and people were overworked from the comfort of their own homes. But if there’s one thing that defines successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, it’s their determination in the face of adversity.

The silent hero and lifeline for that determination has been online crowdfunding.

Platforms such as Indiegogo, Patreon, GoFundMe, and others were the lifeline of many small to medium enterprises (SMEs), as well as solo entrepreneurs working away at their passion projects from the confines of their living rooms.

During 2020, visits to crowdfunding platforms tripled, as 300,000 people actively donated to different projects and causes this month alone, according to numbers by Deloitte.

During the height of the pandemic, brick-and-mortar businesses experienced a painfully screeching halt to their operations, while digitally literate businesses have fared much better during the lockdown.

According to numbers revealed by Indiegogo, the platform witnessed an increase in overall traffic at nearly 14 percent compared to the same time last year, and daily funds raised on the site were up 24 percent compared to the second half of March 2019.

“An air conditioner, an e-bike, and a coffee grinder gained top billing on Indiegogo in March 2020, revealing a world stuck at home and raring to get back into the world,” the report by the crowdfunding site highlighted.

While a world stuck at home sought to fund passion projects across the aisle, there were several Covid-19 related campaigns published on these sites. This is cause for concern since cyberattacks have skyrocketed during 2020, mainly due to hackers highly exploiting the pandemic.

According to India-based market researcher, Market Research Future, the Covid-19 outbreak has significantly altered the healthcare industry worldwide, throwing several challenges at it.

The overwhelming scenario, since the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, has been further aggravated by the alarming rise in cybersecurity threats.

“Malicious hackers are leveraging the pandemic by launching a slew of ransom-ware attacks and phishing campaigns. It is not surprising that following the onset of SARS-CoV-2 and the increased vulnerability due to the lockdown, hackers have become even more active than ever before,” the report highlighted.

Many of these crowdfunding platforms have taken note of this and acted on being wary of these potentially illicit activities; some of these platforms have kept a close eye on Covid-19 related campaigns, as well as stepping up their review processes using the U.S. Department of Justice’s guidelines toward predatory campaigns that take advantage of people in need.

“Accordingly, products claiming to be anti-viral or specifically mentioning the coronavirus are actively being monitored by our Trust and Safety team. Without providing proof of efficacy, the campaigns that we contact and/or fall under this category will be taken down. We have no intention of allowing people to take advantage of the Indiegogo community by using Covid-19 as a selling point,” Indiegogo said in a statement.

Crowdfunding has grown in popularity in an attempt to help startups, SMEs, and even philanthropic causes receive funding during these hard times.

Not only that, but these platforms have opened the door for individuals as well as NGOs to create awareness campaigns about Covid-19 while raising funds for procuring emergency kits and to assist food banks.

In parallel, crowdfunding is also actively working to assist the people most effected by the pandemic and its lockdown such as maids, watchmen, plumbers, electricians, and the like.

This has shown that despite national lockdowns, these initiatives have evoked a sense community, solidarity, as well as philanthropic emotions with others.

One can contribute as much as they like according to their will and capacity, without feeling shy or bad about anything. Thus, an important aspect of these platforms is that it provides an avenue for contribution without any social pressure.

Even though if we find ourselves stuck at home, many people are trying to maintain momentum in their daily lives. The pandemic has proved to be an opportunity for people across the world to explore their passion for social initiatives in their otherwise busy lives.

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Impact

Tech companies take more action to curb climate change

Yehia El Amine

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tech

Several of Europe’s top tech companies have teamed up with Leaders for Climate Change, a Berlin-based climate change non-profit bringing together various entrepreneurs from Germany’s startup ecosystem. 

The companies brought together under this initiative are the likes of idealo, Delivery Hero, BlaBla Car, Wefox, Doctolib, Ecosia, GetYourGuide, Flixbus, Glovo, Cabify, Personio and major VC funds such as e.ventures, Heartcore Capital, Northzone, Picus Capital, Project A, Holtzbrinck Ventures, Acton Capital, and Earlybird.

“Our goal is to turn the whole digital industry climate neutral, influence policy makers to set a global carbon price and act as an example for other industries,” Ferry Heilemann LFCA Co-Founder, serial entrepreneur and investor, said in a statement. 

These companies will aim to fight the climate crisis by pledging to turn business models to become carbon-neutral, building an active community that sets more sustainable industry standards, and influence policymakers.

Currently, LFCA boasts a workforce of around 100,000 employees, alongside a billion active users, giving the initiative immense promise and potential to be able to drive measurable climate action on an industry level. 

The non-profit based their growth on the direct communication to industry leaders, which has taken LFCA from being a grassroot organizations of entrepreneurs to the international stage. 

“We bet on personal commitments. The only way for any founder or CEO to join our initiative is to fulfill the Green Pledge. This means that they have to measure, reduce, and offset their personal carbon footprint, and commit to doing the same with their companies.” Boris Wasmuth, LFCA and GameDuell Co-Founder explained in the statement.  

The Green Pledge made by the LFCA community members, is an attempt to reduce a company’s carbon footprint by 20 percent, while initiating a collective investment of over €4m in climate protection projects, saving more than 250,000 tons of CO2.

LFCA provides a clear framework and digital tools for climate action. Membership is free of charge but, to maintain it, companies must repeat the process of measurement, reduction, and compensation from year to year. 

More than 60 percent of member companies have already implemented impactful reduction measures, such as switching to renewable energy and carbon-neutral cloud providers or maintaining stricter travel policies. 

The average member company aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 percent in the first year.

In parallel, LFCA welcomed more than 25 leading VC funds into their “Sustainability Clause” program this year. 

They’ve integrated the clause into both default term sheets and shareholder agreements. As a result, many of the newly financed companies will commit themselves to measuring their carbon emissions and working on reduction measures.

“As much as voluntary actions from individual companies are needed to contribute to the global reduction of greenhouse gases, LFCA’s belief is that only strong political actions can ensure that greenhouse gases are reduced and removed in all industries and throughout the entire value chains,” the non-profit said in the statement.  

LFCA have called for the immediate establishment of an effective greenhouse gas pricing applied on a regional, country and global level (ideally). The expansion towards 100 percent renewable energy and the global implementation of natural greenhouse gas sinks, must be politically enforced as quickly and effectively as possible.

“We see climate action as a journey that everyone needs to start today at the latest! Therefore, we focus also on companies that are not sustainable yet but are willing to take measurable steps to change this. If we don’t focus on these segments, the impact of climate action will simply stay too small,” Jeremias Heinrich, Co-Founder LFCA and Arvantis Group, highlighted.

Big companies, specifically big tech companies, have also hopped onboard the climate change bandwagon and have started taking decisions that would drastically lower their carbon footprint.

Microsoft: over the past decade, the company has increasingly focused on lowering their whopping carbon footprint. Earlier this year, the tech titan announced their goal to become carbon negative by 2030.

The goal is to remove its total carbon footprint – emitted either directly or via electrical consumption – since its founding in 1975 by 2050.

BMW: the German vehicle company announced a roadmap for the phase up to 2030 that includes the first-ever CO2 goals for full lifecycle in the next decade, as it plans to lower carbon emissions from its production lines by 80 percent per vehicle produced. 

Amazon: the e-commerce titan has set a goal to become a net zero carbon company across all its ecosystem by 2040. Back in 2019, the company witnessed a 22 percent increase in net sales while its total carbon footprint increased by 15 percent. While Amazon has been making investments in solar energy and electric vehicles, it has further committed $2 billion in June 2020, under its Climate Pledge Fund to invest in companies, which will facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In parallel, Apple will also work to achieve 75 percent lower emissions in the next decade, as it plans to develop carbon removal solutions that would cover the remaining 25 percent. 

Cisco: the tech company took matters a bit further by signing a long-term wind energy power purchase agreement (PPA), in its aim to receive 85 percent of its energy from renewable methods by 2022 with a 60 percent GHG reduction, according to the company energy roadmap.

IBM: the tech company has already managed to reduce 39.7 percent in operational CO2 emissions since 2005. IBM is also aiming to depend on clean energy for 55 percent of its energy demands by 2025.

Adobe: the organization set a goal to run its sites and deliver its products with 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, without the use of carbon offsets or unbundled renewable energy credits.

Apple: back in July, the company unveiled its plan of becoming a carbon neutral business across the board, promising that every Apple device developed and sold by 2030 will have a net zero climate impact. 

Facebook: Has already achieved a 59 percent reduction in operational GHG emissions in 2019 compared to 2017 levels and is on its way to achieve its target of 75 percent emissions reduction by the end of 2020.

Google: the tech titan became the first company of its size to match its entire annual electricity consumption with renewable energy. Today, Google is the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world.

Disney: the company aims to reduce its net emissions by 50 percent by 2020 compared to a 2012 baseline. Disney recently bought a new solar facility, which will generate enough power to operate two theme parks in Orlando. It will equate to reducing annual GHG emissions by more than 52,000 metric tons.

Economies and the environment don’t have to be at odds with each other. 

Companies who are actively taking steps to lower their carbon emissions are cutting down on energy costs, boosting employee morale, building a cleaner and more sustainable brand, while scoring points with their clientele, all while protecting the resources and planet we need to operate and thrive.

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