The Global Connectivity Divide: How we’re doing and what’s next to fix it
Image by Flicker User: iLighter (Flickr: Google Loon balloon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gary Smith is Ciena’s President & CEO, having served as Ciena’s chief executive for fourteen years. Gary is a member of President Obama's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, and serves on the board of directors for Avaya and CommVault Systems. Previous posts in Gary’s Digital Revolution series:
- Is the Digital Revolution truly driving growth?
- Realizing the Digital Age: Why connecting the planet may not be enough…
Every day, I read stories where the public is enamored by the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT)—or maybe more accurately the Internet of Sensors. Think of refrigerators that generate your grocery list, self-driving cars, or clothing that can measure your heart rate, breathing rate, and tell you how much sleep you’re getting. This connectivity of things promises tremendous advancements in a multitude of applications with massive benefits, but we need to be careful not to lose sight of what’s really important about the Internet: connecting people! Even though there are now nearly twice as many things connected to the Internet as there are people, much of the world is still working on the critical “people” part of the equation.
The Connectivity Divide
You’ve likely heard me say before that “it’s all about the network.” Perhaps that is an overly simplistic and idealistic notion, but it’s one that is seemingly well supported by multiple economic and social impact studies that attest to global economic growth, job creation, and improvements in quality of life when people are connected. In a World Bank study, for example, a 10% increase in broadband penetration in developing countries correlates to a 1.3% increase in GDP.
Essentially, we’re recognizing that having access to the Internet is a basic platform for economic prosperity. Hence, we have the term “digital divide”—or more accurately now, the “connectivity divide”—to reflect the uneven access to the Internet across the world and the social and economic divisions it can create.
While bridging this divide is rooted in delivering connectivity, it’s also overcoming real-world barriers around digital literacy, cultural relevance, societal receptivity, physical access, and, of course, political willingness. And that’s not to mention the economics of actually deploying the capital to build and support the necessary infrastructure in developing countries, with minimal incomes to fund the service.
While bridging this divide is rooted in delivering connectivity, it is also overcoming real-world barriers around digital literacy, cultural relevance, societal receptivity, physical access, and of course, political willingness- President & CEO, Ciena
How are we doing in addressing this challenge?
Whilst industrialized nations are now largely focused on expanding connectivity to drive IoT and that’s where the excitement is, two-thirds of the planet still doesn’t have basic connectivity (phones or Internet). In fact, according to the ITU, most people around the world have never connected to the Internet.
Developing countries are home to more than 90% of the offline population. For perspective, the U.S. has connectivity rates in excess of 90% and parts of Africa are less than 2%. And while the number of Internet users has more than doubled during the past five years to more than 2 billion, the global rate of connectivity is slowing according to Internet.org’s State of Connectivity 2015 report. In fact, it’s been declining for four straight years to roughly 7% growth in 2014—evidence that the connectivity divide is getting wider.
What are we doing to address this challenge?
As an industry, we’re improving awareness and making innovative efforts to address the connectivity divide for the 5 billion people on planet Earth who are not connected. For example, we have a growing number of commercial, government, and private initiatives underway, including:
- The U.S. government—in coordination with the UN, World Bank, and ITU—recently launched the “Global Connect” program, which is aimed at developing country-specific strategies to connect an additional 1.5 billion people by 2020.
- Internet.org, a well-publicized partnership between Facebook and a number of companies, works to improve Internet access and connectivity “as a human right” through collaboration with mobile carriers in developing markets.
With technology driving a dramatic reduction in costs of network infrastructure, which in many cases are declining faster than Moore’s law on computing, we now have greater choice in how we connect people.
Take Ciena for example. Since the inception of the company, we’ve been instrumental in reducing bandwidth costs, having pioneered the “virtualization of fiber” with DWDM technology. And we continue to lead innovation that delivers massive amounts of raw capacity at ever improving economics.
That increase in global bandwidth to support mobile base stations and direct broadband connectivity is complemented in many regions by several low-latency satellite constellations specifically targeted at delivering Internet access to hitherto “unconnected” nations.
This is also underpinned by a dramatic expansion of submarine cable capacity, which is forecast to grow at a 39% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) during the next five years according to Telegeography, with the most growth on Africa routes. Interestingly, three of the largest investors in these cables are now Google, Facebook, and Microsoft—reinforcing the importance of global connectivity to economic growth.
In addition, the desire to extend the Internet to new users is driving these content providers to explore additional investments in innovative new connectivity options, such as beaming signals from solar powered drones in the case of Facebook, and a global network of giant balloons by Google.
What do we do next to address this challenge?
There’s an abundance of positive indicators to suggest that significant awareness and investments exist today to conquer the Connectivity Divide and deliver on the promise of global connectedness. New technologies are facilitating multi-faceted infrastructure builds that are both enabling new economics and driving innovative new business models.
It’s critical that we continue to evolve the power of the Internet by bringing the digital age to the two-thirds of the planet that has no access. Arguably, the Internet in its broadest form provides the best available opportunity to help drive equality, economic growth, and improve the quality of life on a global basis. If we do not view connectivity as a basic human right and drive its importance accordingly alongside a newfound focus on connecting things, the connectivity divide will persist and likely widen. Let’s not let this happen.