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Upgrading digital infrastructure to serve all people everywhere

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Image: Oleg Magni/Unsplash

Ownership of mobile phones, especially smartphones, is spreading rapidly across the globe. 

Yet, there are still many people in emerging economies who do not own a mobile phone, or who share one with others. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019 mobile divides were most pronounced in Venezuela, India, and the Philippines, countries where three-in-10 adults do not own a mobile phone. 

Of course, when a crisis strikes, such digital technologies can make all the difference. As Samira Sadeque points out in "COVID-19: The Digital Divide Grows Wider Amid Global Lockdown": "The digital divide has become more pronounced than ever amid the global coronavirus lockdown, but experts are concerned that in the current circumstances this divide, where over 46 per cent of the world's population remain without technology or internet access, could grow wider -- particularly among women."

Health care is one of the arenas where digital technologies have taken on a vital role. There is a growing need for high capacity health-care systems and related internet-based services such as telemedicine. Unequal access to technologies, as well as issues around affordability, will exclude people and might prevent them from accessing medical treatment as well as trusted online information about reducing exposure to viruses such as COVID-19. 

Today, there is more and more media coverage of this global digital divide and how the experience of the coronavirus virus ought to contribute to the creation of a more egalitarian world. Recently, in an editorial last month, the Financial Times commented: 

"Some countries, such as Estonia, have long championed digital sovereignty, arguing that the ability to operate online is an essential part of modern life. Post-pandemic, this understanding should be more widely spread. But this will depend on upgrading digital infrastructure so that it serves all citizens … Governments should ensure they expand digital access to [include] those who only make limited use of basic services. That may require them to review pricing structures that currently exclude the most vulnerable, who could gain the most from access to digital resources."

In Canada, 76 per cent of the population owns a smartphone, according to Statistics Canada's 2016 data. However, an annual wireless price comparison study commissioned by the federal government since 2007 has consistently shown that Canada's mobile phone rates rank among the highest when compared to other G7 countries. 

"Prices in France, the U.K. and Italy are noticeably lower than most other countries," according to the 2019 Price Comparison Study of Telecommunications Services in Canada and with Foreign Jurisdictions. The study showed, for example, that one gigabyte of data costs an average $64.80 in Canada, compared to $22.89 in Germany, $35.56 in the U.K., $50.17 in the U.S., and $57.82 in Japan.   

As a result, Canadian households -- particularly those in the low-income level -- choose to subscribe either to mobile services only or to landline services only. In 2016, 32.5 per cent of Canadian households subscribed to mobile services only and 11.4 per cent of households subscribed to landline services only, according to Statistics Canada.  

Both the digital divide and social inclusion need to be addressed by governments and by civil society organizations. The right to communicate is never more urgent than when lives and livelihoods are at stake because access to trustworthy information and news is blocked. 

Marginalized and vulnerable communities, especially women in the Global South, deserve preferential treatment. 

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012). WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. The article originally appeared on the WACC blog.

Image: Oleg Magni/Unsplash

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