Global Connect: Providing a 21st Century Digital Foundation for Development

A woman uses her BlackBerry on Sheikh Zayed highway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo)
A woman uses her BlackBerry on Sheikh Zayed highway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo)

This article was originally published on by Daniel Sepulveda on April 11, 2016.

The metaphorical roads and highways of the 21st century used for the delivery of ideas and services are wired and wireless digital platforms. But unlike traditional transportation infrastructure, too few leaders outside of the technology and telecommunications community recognize the development of broadband infrastructure as critical. As Under Secretary Novelli stressed at the launch of the initiative in September of last year, the Global Connect Initiative (GCI) is the U.S. government’s effort to champion change and promote connectivity, aiming to bring together various actors and initiatives to connect an additional 1.5 billion people to the internet by 2020.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the amount of cross-border digital bandwidth that is used to move data around has grown 45 times larger since 2005. It is projected to increase by an additional nine times over the next five years — connecting more people, ideas, and businesses to places further flung than any asphalt road or highway ever will. For those who are digitally-isolated, their opportunities for growth and success will diminish, exacerbating inequality and further disadvantaging billions of people.

While broadband connectivity will continue to expand in many markets with or without Global Connect, GCI will work to ensure connectivity reaches broadly into all digitally-isolated communities by elevating the priority that nations place on the effort and bringing the development community into the fold to meet the task. In its affordability report published in February, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) assessed that, “without urgent reform, in 2020 we will see just 16% of people in the world’s poorest countries, and 53% of the world as a whole, connected.” We need to do better than that.

GCI’s founding principles acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can bridge the divide; however, experience and empirical research show a high correlation between certain public policies and the expansion of affordable broadband connectivity. A4AI recommends a number of best practices to serve as a model for countries improving connectivity, such as eliminating luxury taxes on information and communication technology (ICT) goods, streamlining infrastructure deployment, and establishing universal service funds so that everyone can have access to affordable internet.

To reach this goal, the private sector must take the leadership role in driving investment and deploying innovative solutions to satisfy global broadband needs. Governments must come to better understand the needs of the ICT industry and the digital economy through direct engagement with industry players. Non-traditional actors in this space, from the development banks to academia to civil society also have to engage and invest in the effort.

Realizing the importance connectivity issues and the economic activity that relies on the digital platform prompted us at the State Department to introduce a new Digital Economy Officers Program, which will help train, inform, and guide our economic officers in every post as they engage on digital issues around the world.

There are many subsequent important issues that arise once people are connected online, from digital literacy and local content to internet governance and internet freedom. But before we can resolve those concerns we have to first bring people online. There may be some difference of opinion on some of these issues in the international community, but there is broad agreement on the importance of connecting people to the internet.

Promoting global broadband connectivity is not a luxury; it is a foundational task, critical to our global responsibility to achieve sustainable growth and a just world. As you read this blog on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone, think about all the other tasks you used it for today –did you monitor a stock price? Check a weather report? Chat with a friend? Manage your bank account? Imagine if you couldn’t do any of those things.

We all know everyone needs and deserves to have affordable access to the modern world of communications. We must continue to work together, using proven best practices, to make this a reality.

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