How IoT Helps to Bridge the Digital Divide

Internet access and digital skills are key to unlocking the potential of the IoT. Applications such as telecommuting, virtual meetings, app-based public transport, smart cars and smart logistics, and smart buildings and smart appliances, can help curb emissions and provide more sustainable urban growth.

One of the most interesting presentations during the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona last year was about the impact of the Digital Divide on the growing urban population, and how IoT could be a game-changer in helping people and governments bridge those differences in access to technology.

Sath Rao, Global Vice-President, Convergence Growth Innovation, at Frost & Sullivan, gave a comprehensive overview of current internet penetration, the challenges of demographics and urban growth, and the issues of sustainability associated with those challenges.

While in 2014 54 percent of the world population lived in cities, mostly in developed countries, that number will grow to 67 percent by 2030, with African nations making the biggest shift.

That movement to cities has already created immense problems in infrastructure, transportation, pollution and quality of life. We all have seen pictures and videos of pollution and overcrowding in Chinese cities, for example, and big city slums in countries such as India and Brazil.

“As of 2014, 60 percent of the global population did not have access to internet, and 56 percent out of this 60 percent belonged to emerging countries,” states the Frost & Sullivan website. “Given the benefits that developed economies derive from proliferation of internet, bridging this digital divide is a pressing global challenge necessitating enhanced public-private collaboration.”

In some countries, access to the Internet is extremely problematic because the population is largely rural. Rao pointed to Sri Lanka as an example of a society where over 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, a rate that has not been reduced in the past 40 years. Deploying the infrastructure necessary to bridge the digital divide using traditional wired technologies, such as digital phone lines or fiber, is economically impossible. That’s why initiatives such as Google’s Project Loom, which the internet company describes as “balloon-powered internet for everyone,” could help the country’s population get online access even in the remotest location. Google is already working with the Sri Lankan government to make this happen.

“The entire Sri Lankan island – every village from (southern) Dondra to (northern) Point Pedro – will be covered with affordable high speed internet using Google’s Loom’s balloon technology,” said Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister as well as the Minister of IT, Agence France Presse reported.

European countries and the United States are facing different challenges, especially related to aging populations. In Europe, the issue is not lack of IT infrastructure or communications, but how to make sure that the infrastructure is constantly improved in order to provide the necessary resources for new applications. Those include new advances in telemedicine –critical for managing chronic diseases–, transportation –such as self-driving vehicles– and the growing number of connected devices, which will require much faster internet connections and wireless infrastructure.

Some countries are already moving forward to a comprehensive internet society. Rao gave the example of Estonia, a Baltic country that was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and is now a member of the European Union.

After getting back its independence, Estonia launched an aggressive program of modernization focusing on digital technologies. As a result mobile phone penetration has increased from 4.92% in 1996 to 164% in 2014. Online banking jumped from zero in 1996 to 97% of financial transactions last year. The Estonians enjoy a streamlined public administration and most of the services can be requested electronically using the country’s secured ID cards. Also the central government, banking on digital technologies, has been able to reduce the duration of cabinet meetings to 60 minutes from ones that lasted 4 to 10 hours.

Rao concluded by talking about an “ikebana” approach to bridging the digital divide, where different types of technologies will be used to bring the benefits of the internet and the IoT to all corners of the world.

“If we change the notion of our battleground, and we realize that we should be targeting all those global challenges –that of demographic shift, of education, of political will– clearly knowledge, innovation and collaboration will likely increase,” he said. “And if we make wise choices, decent prosperity for all is a very possible long term goal.”

A version of this article was previously published as “IoT: Can It Bridge The Digital Divide To Fulfill Its Promise?” on InformationWeek

How IoT Helps to Bridge the Digital Divide