Human-centered connectivity at the United Nations

The United Nations General Assembly Hall

H.E. Mr. Volkan Bozkir, President of the UN General Assembly, organized the UN’s first-ever High-Level Thematic Debate on Connectivity and Digital Cooperation. My topline conclusions from yesterday’s event are:

  1. The human costs of the digital divide must be addressed as we build back from the pandemic, and
  2. Stakeholders from governments, private sector, international organizations and civil society need to work together to end the digital divide by 2030.

More than 70 nations spoke out on the theme Whole-of-Society Approaches to End the Digital Divide. Connecting people with the internet has new urgency and commitment around the world.

I was honored to represent Microsoft on a panel discussing Ending the Digital Divide by 2030. Our message is simple: We believe in taking a human-centered approach to advancing connectivity. Success should be defined by human adoption and benefits, not by infrastructure coverage maps. Progress should be measured by humans’ broad and equitable usage of affordable connectivity and devices, digital literacy and skills development, and delivery of public services. We welcome the international community to further review our thoughts on the digital divide in a white paper, “Closing the Digital Divide: A Human-Centered Approach to Connectivity” that we are publishing in recognition of the UN’s convening.

Our panel included Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of Telecommunication Development Bureau, International Telecommunications Union; Joshua Setipa, Managing Director of the United Nations Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries; Eleanor Sarpong, Deputy Director and Policy Lead, Alliance for Affordable Internet; and Rodney Taylor, Secretary General, Caribbean Telecommunications Union. Our discussion emphasized the urgency for action – especially for the most underserved groups.

The need to put humans at the center of our connectivity efforts was captured in a joint statement, “Leave No One Behind: A People-Centered Approach to Achieve Meaningful Connectivity” that was published for the UN event. Microsoft proudly endorsed the statement alongside thought leaders from industry, civil society and international organizations. This was an important moment to send a clear message to the international community about the need for affordable internet access, affordable devices, digital skills and literacy, and basic human services.

Connectivity, like many other of the most pressing global challenges, can only be solved through coordinated multi-stakeholder action. Given the UN’s central role in addressing global challenges and its convening power, Microsoft believes the UN is an essential body to lead this multi-stakeholder cooperation. That’s why Microsoft announced last year the launch of our new United Nations representation office, which I have the privilege to lead.

We are eager to harness the momentum from yesterday’s High-Level Thematic Debate to advance concrete action to close the digital divide. At this moment when governments around the world are thinking ambitiously about how to build back better from the pandemic, human-centered connectivity must be a critical ingredient of the international community’s recovery agenda.

Human usage, not theoretical coverage, needs to be our goal. In recent discussions at the OECD, experts noted that the global usage gap is six times larger than the coverage gap. Too often, the international community’s approach to connectivity centers on only infrastructure and networks, leading to disproportionate time, attention, and financing being funneled to those activities. Rather, we know from experience that programs and policies must be mindful of the end-user’s perspective. Currently, only 2.5–3 billion individuals are both connected to broadband and can afford to use it. Experts believe that another 2.5–3.5 billion have access to a connection but cannot afford to take advantage of it. The remaining billion are entirely unconnected.

We also know that the Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly increased social and economic disparities between, and within, societies around the world. This gap disproportionately affects women and young girls. Recently, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Inclusive Internet Index reported that men are still 14% more likely than women to have access to the internet. This makes the need for digital skilling more urgent than ever to close the gender digital divide.

Defining human-centered connectivity

Our experience with customers around the world helps us offer a definition of human-centered connectivity as a combination of access, by ensuring the availability of affordable connectivity and devices; readiness, by building digital literacy and skills; and applications, by enabling individuals to receive the benefits of basic human services, like education, health care and economic development. This vision comes from decades of work across various product lines to connect the unconnected, which has taught us critical lessons about connectivity.

  • Airband and partnerships for affordable access. Through Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, we aim to close the digital divide by bringing broadband to unconnected communities globally. We use a technology-neutral approach – we’ve learned that there is no one-size-fits-all technology solution to closing the digital divide, and it is best to rely on internet service providers (ISPs) to determine what solution works best for the communities they are working to serve. Microsoft has worked with innovative partners on the ground around the world to deploy broadband to those who need it most. As just one example, we have worked with AirJaldi, an India-based internet service provider, to boost access to affordable broadband to rural communities. We’ve learned in the course of this work that wireless technologies are an indispensable tool to bring high-quality broadband to the unconnected.
  • Digital skilling. We are also determined to build digital skills around the world to boost access to broadband. Last year, we launched a global skills initiative to bring digital skills to 25 million people in partnerships with non-profits and governments. Data from LinkedIn’s Economic Graph is instrumental in helping us understand the skills that are in highest demand. Through these efforts, we’ve learned that, while there is a wide array of organizations that provide digital skilling and literacy training, there is often a gap between the skills that are offered and the skills that individuals or organizations need.

Additional steps to advance human-centered connectivity

Our work does not stop with these efforts. We are proud to announce additional steps to help bridge the digital divide. This year we will fund research with the Alliance for Affordable Internet to analyze affordable connectivity across several Airband countries. We are also taking steps with the World Bank’s Solutions for Youth Employment team to expand access to digital skills training and financial literacy to advance youth employability around the world. Finally, as a leader of the Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, we will work with partners and peer organizations to champion the role of technology and data science to reduce the gender digital divide.

Microsoft is eager to engage all stakeholders at the UN to develop and facilitate partnerships to operationalize our vision of human-centric connectivity and meet our ambitious goals to connect the unconnected. With the UN’s leadership and concerted multi-stakeholder action, we can achieve the objective of yesterday’s Thematic Debate and close the digital divide by the end of this decade.

Featured photo by Patrick Gruban.

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