How global lessons can help close the digital divide

Guy Diedrich

Senior vice president and global innovation officer at Cisco

Several Cisco initiatives are making significant strides towards fostering equity of access to internet connectivity. Cisco has worked with government leaders and ecosystem partners through its Country Digital Acceleration program to build inclusive communities powered by innovative technology solutions. CDA currently has more than 1,200 active or completed projects in 44 countries since its inception in 2015.

A lesson that we learned from our work through CDA around the world is that in addition to supporting those who live in rural and underserved geographies, barriers exist for populations who face mental and physical disabilities too.

The Cisco team has recently piloted a new project that offers nuance to how we perceive the digital divide. The Autonomous Living Project enables people with developmental disabilities to live independently and access emergency support. The combination of remote monitoring, smart notifications, alert services and smart device integration gives people with diverse abilities the in-home support they need to live independently.

As business leaders and technologists, we must bridge the digital divide that unfortunately continues to grow within our communities. We need to think about all the facets and long-term impacts of the digital divide. CDA and ALP are great examples of Cisco’s commitment to helping foster digital inclusion and equity of access.

Angela Baker

Chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm

Since 2006, Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative has brought advanced wireless technologies to underserved communities in nearly 50 countries, with the aim of closing the digital divide. Wireless Reach has helped more than 24 million people by addressing global inequalities and ensuring access to life-changing technology. Our programs foster entrepreneurship, aid in public safety, enhance the delivery of health care, improve the state of our environment and enrich education ecosystems. We are advancing the adoption of technology by providing “always on, always connected” devices to improve teaching and learning in Asia, Latin America, Europe and the U.S. By providing digital tools, market information, the capacity to sell products to new areas and consumers, and access to mobile payment systems, we’re enabling financial inclusion in Asia, Africa and Europe.

A vital component of the Wireless Reach initiative is collaboration with non-governmental organizations, universities, government institutions, nonprofits, development agencies and other private-sector companies to ensure beneficiaries are set up for long-term success, a key to closing the digital divide. It’s not enough to bring technology to communities, but it is critical to establish systems ensuring communities to access and the ability to integrate modern technology into their daily lives for years to come. This effort cannot be achieved by one company or institution, but through coordination between public and private institutions to successfully close the digital divide. We look forward to continuing this work at Qualcomm and encourage other companies with the resources to join us in this mission.

Melissa Newman

Vice president of Government Affairs at the Telecommunications Industry Association

The U.S. should focus on deployment over industrial policy. The administration wants to use the Title IX “Buy America” provisions of the infrastructure bill to expand domestic manufacturing of telecommunications equipment. TIA supports U.S. manufacturing. The problem is that, as things stand, there is no combination of equipment and services that meets Title IX’s complex requirements. Even setting aside cost, it will take years for manufacturers and their suppliers to shift production to the United States. This program will not connect anyone to the internet in the short term from end-to-end without a waiver of these requirements.

There is no precedent for these domestic manufacturing requirements internationally. When a country like South Korea set out to expand broadband, it didn’t require every switch, router and radio to be manufactured in Korea using Korean components. Rather, it took the practical approach of using the best technology available, decreasing costs to consumers by lowering tariffs and focusing on connecting people to the internet, all while nurturing leading, trusted technology firms.

We also need to deal with security on the front end. The United Kingdom is spending hundreds of millions of pounds replacing insecure equipment from untrusted vendors, such as China’s Huawei, from their networks. It is a mistake the U.S. has made before, and we cannot afford to make it again. IIJA funds ought to purchase proven, secure equipment upfront — guided by both industry standards and legal requirements — that won’t need to be replaced later.

Tigran Sloyan

CEO at CodeSignal

I got access to my first computer in 2005. Shockingly late for many kids in my generation, but very early for my friends. I grew up in Armenia when food and electricity were scarce – we had a TV that sometimes worked, but you would have called me the have not of the digital divide.

That first computer was a pivotal moment for me. When I was a kid, my father helped me turn my interest in math into a passion that had me representing my country at the International Mathematical Olympiad. But it wasn’t until I got that computer and suddenly had access to textbooks written after 1970, and math forums that I started to win those competitions and win big. That success propelled me to where I am today.

But, my success wasn’t that I got online and could spend my days watching videos and scrolling through memes. The lesson that we can learn from around the world is that the goal needs to be closing the digital divide, but the mission needs to be about human betterment.

Many media companies have successfully gotten devices into the hands of people and the internet to remote villages, but what is the outcome? If it is just more time scrolling, then we have all fallen short. This divide must be closed with devices & the internet, but the solution must also include education, representation, and wider access to professional opportunities.

Mike Bell

Senior vice president and general manager at Corning Optical Communications

With connectivity increasingly central to the way we live, it’s no surprise that access to broadband is coming to be seen as a fundamental human right. But there’s work to do: According to figures cited by the Brookings Institution, as many as 42 million homes lack broadband internet. Among those disproportionately affected are low-income and elderly populations, people of color and those who live in rural areas.

As a global company, Corning works with customers around the world to bring more connections to more people in more places. We’re glad to see governments in the U.S. and elsewhere investing in broadband expansion. We think it’s especially important to incentivize networks that are future-ready — laying out expectations for speed and capacity that will meet growing bandwidth demands for decades to come. That’s why we’re glad the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gives priority to higher speeds. And the European Commission has encouraged investment in what they term “Very High Capacity Networks,” which regulators there have essentially defined as fiber to the premises.

Optical fiber, invented by Corning more than 50 years ago, has nearly unlimited bandwidth — so once you deploy it, you can trust that it will support consumer demand for generations. That’s important, because studies suggest that consumers will demand symmetrical speeds of 1 gigabit per second by 2030, with some suggesting download speeds an order of magnitude higher to support advanced technologies. In addition to requirements for speed and capacity, we think it’s important to incentivize symmetrical networks, because increasingly, we’re uploading as much as we’re downloading.

Innovation is also key. In one project, we’re experimenting with rural providers on alternative deployment methods and network solutions to overcome cost and network construction barriers.

Bridging the digital divide will require future-ready networks capable of meeting the bandwidth demands of applications that are just emerging, or that haven’t even been thought of yet. We’re proud to play a part in that story — expanding the bandwidth of human potential.

See who’s who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated May 10, 2022).

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