The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every aspect of life, including education, in an unexpected and long-lasting way. To keep our economies from coming to a halt, governments are maximizing online employment practices and improving e-health and e-learning capabilities. Academic institutions all over the globe have embraced online education as a way to make up for the significant drop in training hours. Professional and skilled workers in the economy have easily and effectively moved to online work mode. A large proportion of poor and uneducated workers (especially in the informal sectors), on the other hand, lost their livelihoods. In this post-digital world, not being connected means being shut out of education, employment, and essential healthcare resources – in short, it means being excluded from the complete financial and social opportunities that any person should have.


‘Digital divide’ is a concept used to represent these inequalities. The global economy is witnessing major technological changes, with electronic content emerging as a core component. With advanced technology such as quantum and cloud computing growing as a result of these earlier developments, these shifts are likely to accelerate in the coming years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges that technology has revolutionized society, and cites “technologies” and “ICTs” as implementation tools.


Increased Digital Access


Digitalization has opened up plenty of new opportunities and propelled the economy to new heights. Because of the widespread usage of smart phones and internet access, unthinkable things have become possible. The world’s largest corporations by market capitalization were either in the oil and gas, or heavy manufacturing sectors until around a decade ago. But now, seven among the top eight businesses in the world by market capitalization currently use a data-centric business model. The digital and information transformation offers developing economies a chance to make a massive leap forward by connecting into the growing international digital marketplace.


The digital economy has facilitated growth in various spheres of business, by establishing links through industries. But there is a divide in its access between high-income and low-income countries, with high-income countries generally seeing higher levels of digital technology adoption than less developed countries. Over 90% of the population in high-income countries like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark use the Internet. However, less than 10% of the population in low-income countries like Afghanistan has access.


Emerging and developing economies face a significant challenge in this context. According to the UN the 47 least developed countries represent the most vulnerable international population, comprising of over 880 million people, and 12% of the global population. However, this segment currently only accounts for less than 2% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Providing these communities with internet and mobile broadband access is likely to boost their contribution to GDP and promote inclusive innovation. Affordable connectivity remains a major challenge in many countries of the world, especially in their rural and remote areas. In order to accelerate access to adequate ICT services, efforts should be made to increase access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet services.


A Development Opportunity for India: Transforming Digital Divide into Digital Dividend


India is undergoing a digital revolution that has the potential to lead us forward in support of economic development, but it also has the potential to create a new class of technologically illiterate people. Digital poverty is a modern definition of poverty that refers to the inability to access and benefit from the information and communications technology resources. In terms of digital literacy, the government has made several attempts to develop citizens’ digital literacy skills. The National Digital Literacy Mission and the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan are two major digital literacy projects that have been launched.


With the entry of multiple internet service providers during the past decade, the number of internet users has risen sharply, from 267.4 million in December 2014 to 687.2 million in September 2019. The internet is now more accessible than it has ever been – thanks to improved competition among internet service providers. India has the second-largest internet user base in the world with more than 630 million subscribers. It also has the lowest mobile data prices offered anywhere. Despite this, for every Indian citizen with an internet subscription, there is a citizen in a rural area who lacks one. Considering that 66% of the population lives in rural areas, there is a sizeable percentage of the country’s people living in regions where internet access is minimal.


In rural India however fewer than 15% of households have access to the internet, with Scheduled Tribe households, only 9% having access. Due to the suspension of classroom teaching, the digital divide is likely to exacerbate the already-existing literacy gap between the rich and poor households. Children from educated and wealthy families have access to all appropriate educational opportunities, since their parents are capable of imparting knowledge, and they can also access courses online. However, children of disadvantaged and illiterate backgrounds, who primarily attend government schools and lack digital skills, are left stranded.


Affluent students have had an easier time transitioning, but the underprivileged students are falling behind, owing to a lack of accessibility to Internet services, resulting in unequal educational services. These inequalities in access result in a digital divide among students when it comes to online education. Unless the constitutional commitments to provide quality education for everyone are met, the vision of Digital India will remain elusive. The scope of e-learning is enormous and can help realize the potential of each student. There lie both opportunities and challenges for the government and the private sector. The aim should be to ensure equal and adequate access to such platforms as the country continues to globalize and catch up with advanced economies. If the Indian education system aims to transit to online learning in the future, it must emphasize policies that bridge the digital divide.


Overcoming the Barrier of Inequality: Sustainable Solutions for the Digital Divide


On the one side, the digital economy offers a chance to catch up in terms of economic and technical growth by leveraging digital technology. On the other, these innovations risk widening the economic disparity, rendering current initiatives in emerging economies unsustainable. The Internet has the propensity to exacerbate already-existing economic disparities between those with and those without access. Policies to enhance affordability will be a major step forward in making digital resources more accessible to billions of people.


Closing the digital divide is essential for developing nations’ advancement, as it can promote economic and social equality, increase social mobility, and fuel entrepreneurship. In view of this, policymakers should align their strategies and promote balanced growth in the digital world. If the digital divide is not bridged, then in place of old forms of inequalities, there will be new forms. The lack of access to the internet or inadequate capacity would mean that the country will not be able to move ahead in a digitalized economy. If we are to fully harness the economic potential of the digital revolution to benefit the many and not the few, there is a need for global cooperation and a readiness from the leading digital powers to share the spoils of this technological bonanza. Immediate action at the state, national, and international levels is needed to overcome the global digital divide.


In this regard, a framework could be set up at the international level to provide regulatory measures for the new digital ecosystem. Possible regulatory measures could comprise structural solutions, such as amendments to or the adoption of legislation, by creating the conditions for ICT to play a significant role in the growth and resilience of the global economy. Connecting the world to broadband Internet is predominantly an infrastructure investment challenge. But infrastructure alone is not sufficient, which means that complementary initiatives are needed to connect people already covered by broadband networks. The WTO could play a significant role in strengthening the capacity of officials in developing countries on these key issues while supporting and advising them in implementing suitable regulatory and legal frameworks. Similarly, WTO member States have a crucial role to play nationally in researching the impact of ICT, while implementing policies to foster the emergence of the sector, such as a national growth strategy for the sector, subsidies for equipment, investment in digital and online training.


A global and open internet is crucial to achieving the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs aim to create partnerships among countries, and the protection and promotion of the internet could be a key way to unite stakeholders. Though the SDGs are non-binding, 193 UN members have signed and adopted the document as a part of their commitment to improving the 17 listed areas of which access to the internet stands to have a significant role in.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.