Beyond the next billionConnecting the Unconnected is not sufficient; Digital Inclusion is the key
by Augie Fabela
One of the items on the agenda of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions addresses the question of “connecting the unconnected,” or more precisely, tackling the challenge of broadening internet access to everyone around the world.
In humanitarian quarters, the phrase “connecting the next billion” has been proposed as society’s next goal for inclusion and development. That may sound like a laudable goal, but in my view, it is a short-sighted and mistaken perspective. The thinking behind “connecting the next billion” reflects old and outdated assumptions about how things happen in the world today.
The growth of the Internet, social and digital services is exponential. The focus for the future of inclusion should be on empowering the digitally disconnected.
In the emerging digital markets, namely those countries that have just recently come online with 3G and 4G, the impact of digital inclusion will be magnified. Most new customers in those markets will be coming into the mobile and digital world without prior experience of earlier digital technologies. These emerging direct-to-smartphone customers, some of whom will even pick up their literacy skills through our services, will experience the digital world differently than those who became connected before them. Their experience will be shaped by the unique social, political and economic structures that will drive new uses.
Digital inclusion will ensure economic impact, widespread talent development, and borderless distribution of entrepreneurial passion and ingenuity that will change our world. The key question is how we will connect and digitally empower everyone.
For our part, VimpelCom will initially bring the power of digital to all of the 750 million people in the countries in which we currently operate. In addition, we are actively creating sustainable approaches to delivering digital empowerment beyond our current markets.
To make significant progress, we need the help of other partners, notably governments and regulators, and also our fellow players in the digital space.
Among the key players in the digital world, the mobile industry is uniquely dependent on its relationships with governments and regulators. They are the ones who provide us with spectrum. They spell out the rules for how it can and must be used, and they charge us for using it. They also set the number of licenses in each market, determining the intensity and focus of local competition. So far, governments and regulators have focused on artificially maximizing competition by issuing too many licenses. They need to start shifting their focus more towards inclusion and economic development–helping operators optimize their coverage and infrastructure to maximize investments and promote growth.
Just as Facebook and Snapchat were spawned from the American university experience and Alibaba emerged from China, I believe the new emerging digital markets have the potential for generating some real blockbusters. Their power will be unleashed through digital empowerment and maximum inclusion, and it is our job to turn our vision on inclusion into action and leadership in digitally empowering the disconnected. The measure and result of success in achieving this will be sustainable global economic development and progress.
A version of this post first appeared on the World Economic Forum Agenda, 10 September 2015