How can telcos cross the digital divide?

The idea that fast, affordable internet is a necessity in modern life is hardly up for debate any more. In recent years democratising online access has become a major priority for economic growth around the world, with governments like the US and the European Union setting out substantial funds to improve digital infrastructure.

According to a new report by Dell’Oro Group, the broadband access market will reach $23.4bn in 2026.

But where do telcos fit into that picture? Some, such as Ogi in Wales and Start Broadband in Australia, are addressing the digital divide by connecting remote and disadvantaged communities. But is there more that telcos could be offering, to not only bring the internet to more people but also get the most out of their digital access?

Broadband rollout is a means, not an end

Something that’s often forgotten in the push to improve internet access is that broadband is like a car – the point isn’t really to have it, it’s what you use it for.

The internet is a world of possibilities that goes well beyond emails, social media and gaming online. With affordable, accessible broadband, people have an open doorway to build a website, learn new skills, create content, forge rich community connections and launch a potentially global business.

Take farmers, for example. While the rise of industrialised food production has meant cheaper groceries for consumers, it’s also had a huge impact on the fortunes of traditional agriculture. In 2017 the US Department of Agriculture reported that only 43% of America’s farms were profitable, while $16 billion were paid out in crop subsidies.

To make ends meet, those farmers are turning to more diversified business models, such as selling produce directly to consumers or repurposing unprofitable fields for glamping and festivals. And in order to make that new aspect of the business thrive, they need a competitive online presence – something that’s difficult to achieve when more than 20% of US rural communities lack a reliable internet connection.

But rolling out full fibre broadband is only part of the answer to this digital divide. Democratisation means opening the door for everyone to take advantage of the internet’s possibilities, and that takes more than just offering them the keys to the car.

Telcos are brilliant at championing online accessibility, but how successful are they when it comes to engaging their audiences in what they can use it for?

Telcos need to champion the trail blazers, the side hustlers and the entrepreneurial spirit and give people ideas that they can put their own spin on. What if you could set up a slick online bookings system and collect payments alongside buying your broadband? That could very well answer the dreams of the next not-so-tech-savvy farmer searching for a way to set up their new glamping business.

There’s no blueprint for tech democratisation

One of the biggest challenges with democratising tech is that there’s no single solution that can be rolled out in every context, and not everyone has the same needs.

Broadly speaking there are three different problems to solve. The first is those who need internet access to begin with. That might be because they live in a developing nation without the right level of infrastructure, or because they live in a rural or disadvantaged community where the connection hasn’t yet been extended.

Then there are those who can access a wireless network, but need the right tools to get what they need from it – digital entrepreneurs, creatives, and business owners looking for a more efficient way of running things.

We recently partnered with a large technology company in South Africa who are championing livelihood change using digital tools. In regions where high smartphone penetration means the absence of broadband isn’t necessarily a barrier to internet connectivity, our BaseKit Site builder empowers micro business owners to build their own site on the mobile device they already own.

Lastly, there’s the issue of education. As crucial as it is to supply people with reliable, affordable access and powerful toolkits, it’s not true democratisation if only a small handful of people know how to really use them.

Confidence is key to bridging the digital divide

As much as the global digital economy is taking hold, digital phobia is still a huge factor in the digital divide. Whether you’re fluent in JavaScript or need help setting up an email address, everyone will have at least one aspect of the digital world that feels forever out of reach.

Part of the solution is making sure the digital technologies on offer are as clear and simple to use as possible. If a website builder is swarming with advanced options and digital jargon, it quickly throws up barriers to entry. But if the UX is intuitive and the process is easy to follow, it breeds confidence.

It’s also a matter of perception. To so many, the idea of setting up a website or an online booking system sounds at worst impossible, and at best more hassle than it’s worth to learn.

That’s a tough barrier for telcos to break down. But ultimately the key is helping them to understand how tech can make their lives easier in the long run – especially for micro businesses – and that you don’t need a computer science degree to get started. Once that confidence to learn is there, the digital skills will follow.

To learn more about how to cross the digital divide, check out our thoughts on how to champion good tech. And if you want to find out more about how BaseKit can help drive tech democracy for micro businesses, speak to us or request a demo.

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