Is the Middle East crossing the digital divide?
Broadband internet access plays a key role in economic and social development by providing commerce, governments and their constituents with the tools they need to work, live and do business. It’s estimated that as many as 90 per cent of jobs now require some form of computer use, while research has shown that online access is a key factor in empowering individuals, enabling social mobility and promoting general well-being. So news that the UAE ranks among the most affordable countries for prepaid mobile-broadband services is a hugely important step on the path to digital inclusion.
Digital inclusion ensures all individuals and every disadvantaged group have access to and the skills to use ICT, and are therefore able to participate in and benefit from the growing knowledge and information society. There is overwhelming evidence that those who are not connected — largely those living in remote or deprived areas, those on low incomes, the elderly and the disabled — are in danger of becoming increasingly socially excluded.
Access, availability and accelerated inclusion
Access and availability of broadband are two key drivers of digital inclusion, and residents of the UAE seem extremely well placed. In the latest edition of Measuring the Information Society 2013, released by the International Telecommunication Union, which features key ICT data and benchmarking tools to measure the level of ICT developments and compare progress across 157 economies worldwide, the UAE came out very well indeed. Monthly broadband access in the Emirates costs less than one per cent of GNI (gross national income) per capita. The quality of the telecoms infrastructure is fundamental and at the heart of all of this. And when it comes to mobile, the UAE can boast the fastest mobile networks and high speeds across the entire country. On the mobile broadband front, the level of penetration is the highest in the world. For fixed broadband, the UAE is fast on its way to becoming the first country in the region to become completely fibre connected.
In fact progress has been made across the GCC: here, broadband household penetration levels are on the increase, reaching around 39 per cent in 2014 across the Middle East region. Smartphone use is also booming, with penetration growing by around 40 per cent too, by 2015.
Availability and access to broadband are complex issues, however. “Can people get reasonably-priced broadband if they want it?” is a relatively straightforward question to deal with; the problem can be easily defined and tackled as it primarily concerns network and service reach. To date, this challenge has attracted the most focus, effort and public funding, often due to pressure from regulators. Those remaining areas where availability is still a barrier are almost exclusively rural.
Accessibility encompasses different factors specific to a number of discrete user groups. Moreover, it refers generally to any kind of access to the Internet (not just broadband access) — for example, barriers such as disability or an inability to use a PC or smartphone apply to both narrowband, broadband and mobile Internet access.
Digital inclusion from the ground up
Globally, there is now an overwhelming consensus that ICT and the infrastructure on which it depends are crucial to economic growth and, increasingly, social progress. This applies to the ICT sector as an industry in its own right, but also to its role as a vital tool for economic and social development across a range of sectors. Broadband-based Internet access is now a vital tool in combating digital exclusion, but connectivity alone is often not enough. Strategies to promote Internet usage need to work as part of wider inclusions efforts, embedding usage into education, social care and other programmes designed to empower the socially excluded.
More than ever, regional and local initiatives play an equally important role, with those best placed to aid in promoting adoption being those most closely linked with different user groups whose needs they understand. These could be elderly technology advocates, community leaders, social workers or family members. Going forward, encouraging and providing such ‘agents of change’ with the necessary backing and tools to encourage and educate non-users to adopt broadband-based Internet will become a prerequisite for all digital inclusion initiatives.
The drivers for ubiquitous broadband access are part of a wider and increasingly substantiated view that the ‘digitisation’ of a country will bring substantial benefits to business, government and citizens. According to one recent study by Orange, it was found that a 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration can lead to a one per cent increase in gross domestic product (GDP).
In today’s world, access to online information has become a central part of day-to-day life; commercial enterprises offer online customer service, financial institutions provide the ability to conduct transactions online and legislatures implement e-government for public services. In this respect, the UAE has taken the lead by envisioning a world-class smart government for the 21st century. As everyone from consumers to constituents, employees to business owners, and doctors to patients become more reliant on the internet, there is a growing need to ensure that entire populations have access to reliable, high-bandwidth internet service, as well as the tools to leverage that access.
By: Fahed AlHassawi
The writer is the chief commercial officer of du. Views expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy.
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