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Harnessing the 5G wireless dividend to help connect those left behind

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View of dock in Cape Broyle, NL. Image: Terrilynn Lushman/Unsplash

Access to communication and information tools and platforms, including digital platforms, is essential to enable us all to exercise our human rights.

In today's world, fully exercising basic rights -- such as the right to freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of assembly, or to private communication -- is inconceivable without real access to digital, internet-based communication. Our ability to exercise these basic communication rights is critical to enable us to exercise other human rights, such as the right to access to justice or to education.

Access to digital communication varies widely across developed and developing countries. While developed countries like Canada are in the midst of a transition from 4G to 5G networks that promises to open up a broad range of new possibilities -- such as the internet of things -- nearly half of the world's population or 3.4 billion people are still offline. Most are in developing countries.

Canada itself suffers from a digital divide in terms of connectivity and affordability. Only 39 per cent of Canadians living in rural and remote areas and only 24 per cent of households in Indigenous communities have access to broadband speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading data and at least 10 Mbps for uploading them. The situation is much worse in the Northwest Territories, were no households have access to such broadband speeds. Access to such speeds is available to 96 per cent of Canada's urban dwellers.

The global digital divide presents a dilemma for those working to democratize communication and information everywhere: how does one help unleash the full potential of open and accessible communication and information brought about by 5G wireless technology, while also working towards affordable and accessible digital communication for all?

Driven by the principle of solidarity and by the promise of economic and human development made possible as a result of greater connectivity, those who stand to gain the most in terms of the profits made possible by the 5G revolution should take a leadership role in helping to bring affordable and robust internet access to all, especially the most marginalized people in developing countries. Embracing and reinvigorating universal service and access funds (USAF) is one way to do more in that direction.

The digital transformation of the past 20 years has had a major economic impact. For the media and advertising industry, for example, the rise of digital internet-based services translated to major disruption, as revenue shifted from media companies to internet companies such as Google and Facebook. Today, these two companies have a market share of 63 per cent of the total global advertising market, roughly US$61.6 billion per year.

A similar situation may take place as 5G wireless connectivity becomes the norm in developed economies over the next few years, mainly as a result of the likely rise of new businesses and increased productivity.

"We're looking at a world where not just all people are connected but all things are, too: cars will be connected to roads, patients and their medical devices to their doctors; smart cities will offer all new connected services to residents and workers," writes technology analyst Steve Harris.

This shift will have major economic consequences. For example, the share of European GDP linked to mobile technologies is set to rise from 3.3 per cent in 2017 to 4.1 in 2022, at a time when 5G connectivity is expected to boom, adds Harris. The global economic impact of 5G is expected to reach US$12 trillion by 2035, according to an article published by the World Economic Forum.

Many people around the world live in remote, rural, or impoverished communities that lack robust internet infrastructure and services. This is the result of, among other things, the fact that for large telecommunication companies, providing services in these communities may not make economic sense.

In order to address this situation, many countries around the world have set up the USAF to help bring telecommunication services to these types of communities. USAFs are made up of contributions made by telecommunication companies and administered by the state. USAFs are meant to help address access gaps by setting up telecom services that will eventually become commercially viable.

However, not all countries have USAFs, and in the cases where USAFs exist, they are often under-utilized. For example, only 23 of 54 countries in Africa have active USAFs, according to the World Wide Web Foundation.

USAFs should receive greater attention in the context of internet governance as they offer a concrete mechanism to help address access gaps. Private, public, and civil society actors should work together to encourage more sustainable contributions to national USAFs, to establish a global mechanism for telecoms and companies benefitting from 5G in developed countries to contribute towards a global-level USAF, and to promote greater transparency in the management of USAFs.

The inherent challenges of this approach are many, from political will to infrastructure gaps to technical issues. However, by balancing a sense of solidarity, pragmatism, and the promise of economic growth made possible by universal connectivity, much can be done to halt the emergence of a new digital divide.

Lorenzo Vargas is a communication for development specialist and researcher on citizens' media. Lorenzo coordinates WACC Global's communication for social change program, which supports community media and citizen journalism initiatives in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Africa.

WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. It is a member of the ACT Alliance.

Image: Terrilynn Lushman/Unsplash

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