Bringing the other half of the world online

Photo of an African Renewable Energy Distributor employee explaining how a mobile solar kiosk hub works
With support from Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative Grant Fund, African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED) is further developing the SHIRIKI hub, a mobile solar kiosk that provides Wi-Fi connectivity as well as phone charging and other mobile services to rural communities in Rwanda. ARED also fosters gender equality and entrepreneurship by requiring at least 30 percent of its franchisees to be women. An ARED employee is shown explaining how the SHIRIKI hub works. Photo courtesy of ARED.

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted a new sustainable development agenda to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.” Part of that agenda specifically calls for universal and affordable access to the internet by 2020. Yet nearly 4 billion people still lack internet access, and time is running out to meet the U.N.’s target date. They are at risk of falling further behind as the other half of the world benefits from artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies. However, a new report authored by SSG Advisors, the United States Agency for International Development and the Digital Impact Alliance identifies actions the private and public sectors can take to close the access gap more quickly.

First, the development community, including the development banks, donors and other organizations, should prioritize internet connectivity and access by integrating it into their core missions. Internet access helps drive broader development goals, such as improving healthcare, education and employment. In fact, it is estimated that internet connectivity can enhance productivity in developing countries by 25 percent, generate $2.2 trillion in additional GDP growth and create more than 140 million new jobs. Continued multilateral collaboration is also key to closing the access gap. For example, the Global Connect Initiative, supported by 40 nations, asks governments, civil society and the private sector to create enabling regulatory environments, spur innovation and build infrastructure to bring 1.5 billion more people online.

Both the public and private sectors can also increase investment in internet service providers and other businesses that are committed to delivering cost-effective and high-quality broadband access, along with relevant content, applications and services to those who are currently disconnected. The public and private sectors should also do more to support new technologies and business models that will be more cost-effective in delivering internet access in these markets. This includes creating a legal and regulatory environment conducive to such investment.

No one agency or company can achieve this alone, but we each can contribute to the cumulative impact. For example, Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative (AAI) seeks to support, grow and scale innovative businesses that are developing technologies and business models that have the potential to help billions more people get online affordably. Through our AAI Grant Fund, we support market-based innovation through seed grants, as well as a network of peers, mentors and commercial partnerships. We are also entering into an increasing array of business partnerships designed to deliver impact at scale. Entrepreneurs are hungry for this type of support, as evidenced by the doubling of grant applications since our first round of funding last year.

More private sector companies need to take action, just as more government organizations must recognize the social and economic benefits that universal internet access can provide. This is a global imperative. While the vast majority of people without connectivity live in the least developed countries, there are also millions of disconnected people in the U.S. About 20 percent of American households still lack broadband connections. Connectivity opens up modern opportunities in education, commerce, healthcare and much more — for all.

By working together, we can make the internet a tool for empowerment and economic growth. To learn more, please check out the report, Connecting the Next Four Billion: Strengthening the Global Response for Universal Internet Access.