Education and empowermentThe combination for bridging the digital divide?
by Marine Babayan
Of the world’s 7.1 billion people, 4.2 billion have never used the Internet.
Bringing the next billion users on board can happen quickly – and deliver broad-based social and economic benefits – if they can be served with the right combination of low-cost devices, robust infrastructure and digital skills. A failure to deliver could leave these people further behind, perpetuating the digital divide instead of bridging this gap.
As the World Economic Forum points out, the growth potential of the digital economy can only be realized if digital infrastructure keeps pace, and equally, if the opportunities of the digital economy are extended to all, not just the wealthy or those that have Internet access.
The digital economy is today one of the fastest growing sectors globally, developing at a rate of about 10% a year, surpassing the overall rate of economic growth in all but the fastest-growing countries in the world. In developing countries, this growth rate can increase to as high as 25%. Research has also shown that a 10% increase in fixed broadband penetration results in a 1.4% increase in GDP growth in developing countries and a 1.2% increase in developed economies.
Building a truly inclusive e-society and driving the growth of the digital economy, however, requires all parties to work to spread the seeds of digitization. Equipping and educating all users and in particular, the next generation with digital skills and the infrastructure to use them is the pathway towards a more equal digital future, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
We have a unique vantage point on this issue as VimpelCom serves 218 million voice and data customers, many in developing markets, through a range of traditional and broadband mobile and fixed technologies. We know that the digitization needs of different countries vary considerably.
In more developed regions, such as the European Union, the next steps will involve delivering next-generation 5G networks and high-speed mobile broadband across the Continent as part of the Digital Single Market initiative. In countries such as Pakistan or Algeria, more basic mobile networks are needed to leverage and deliver a variety of essential services, including health, financial, and government.
These local needs combine with broader needs to provide low-cost devices to increase the population with connected access to public and commercial digital services, and to upgrade the population’s level of digital skills.
Across the world, there is a shortage of people with the right skills to succeed in the digital world. Even in Europe, a relatively wealthy region that suffers from endemic youth unemployment, the European Union estimates that there could be up to 900,000 unfilled jobs in the ICT sector by 2020, as not enough Europeans have the right skills to fill them.
This year, we launched our own “Make Your Mark” program, which aims to help young people leave their mark on our planet – educating and empowering them to enable them to address societal challenges. We encourage this through entrepreneurship training and incubation, support for digital education, and providing broadband access for schools and other institutions serving the young.
For sure, bridging the digital divide can’t be left to the operators alone. Internet companies, regulators, governments, device manufacturers and infrastructure vendors all have a part to play. We do see a winning combination if we work together—maximizing access, and giving people the skills to make the most of that.
What are you doing to support digital growth and skills development for the workforce of tomorrow?
 McKinsey & Company 2014.
 Data collected by World Economic Forum from EIU, Ovum, Gartner, Euromonitor, OECD, BCG analysis
 Scott, C. 2012. “Does Broadband Internet Access Actually Spur Economic Growth?” Paper, December 7. Available at http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~rcs/classes/ictd.pdf