3 Ways To Bridge The Digital Divide

Here's why harnessing white space and adopting "dig once" policies should help

Photo: Jake Lyell/Alamy

What will it take to bring the next billion people online? These days, the answer has as much to do with smart policy as with technical expertise. This week in Washington D.C., policy experts worked alongside engineers at a meeting (hosted in part by the IEEE Internet Initiative) intended to sketch a picture of what such a transition might look like around the world.

Companies such as Google and Facebook would like to know, and so would government leaders struck by the Internet’s power as an economic engine. More than half the world’s population, or about 4.2 billion people, do not have regular access to the Internet, according to the latest report published last fall by the U.N. Broadband Commission.

Last year, the U.S. State Department announced the Global Connect Initiative, which aims to bring 1.5 billion people online by 2020. As part of that effort, some of the ideas discussed this week will be presented on Thursday to financial ministers during a high-level meeting at the World Bank led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Experts emphasized that there is no single technology or network structure that makes sense for every community. However, they offered a few good starting points for any country looking to bolster its number of internet users:

1. Permit unlicensed use of white space.

White space is a term for TV and radio frequencies that aren’t currently in use for existing channels. Originally, these extra frequencies were packed between channels as a sort of buffer in order to prevent interference. But companies have since found ways to operate on these channels without causing any interruption to neighboring programs.

Furthermore, a global transition to digital television and radio from analog has freed up an even broader swath of spectrum. Digital signals can transmit on adjacent channels without causing a disruption to either. Since rural areas tend to have access to fewer existing channels in the first place, they would have even more leftover spectrum.

New devices including smartphones, tablets, and computers that know how to detect unused spectrum can use it to transmit wireless broadband signals, also known as “WhiteFi” or “Super Wi-Fi.” These frequencies are especially useful because they can carry a lot of data over long distances and reach indoors. Tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell, and HP faced off against broadcasters to support early efforts to reuse white space for this purpose, and launched some of the first tests for new devices capable of doing it.

Now, enthusiasm for WhiteFi is picking up across the world. A national demonstration project in the United States conducted in public libraries has since spread to Finland, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Separately, Kenya has also experimented with it in two rural communities while Microsoft and Google recently led trials in South Africa. The Indian Institute of Technology has tested the technology in 13 villages and hopes to eventually serve many more.

2. Adopt a “dig once” mentality.

Whenever a company wants to install a new optical fiber cable to provide better Internet access to a house or community, it must first hire bulldozers and a construction crew to dig a path to the new destination. If multiple companies want to deploy fiber to the same area at different times, they might wind up digging the same route again.  

It’s easy to understand why this process is expensive and disruptive to locals. Experts at this week’s meeting say a much easier and cheaper approach would be for governments to require road construction crews to lay a single conduit alongside each new road as they are building it, through which all future fiber optic cables could be threaded. International development banks could do the same for the projects they fund. Experts stressed the value of these “dig once” policies; the U.S. Federal Highway Administration has said that this way of doing things can reduce the cost of deploying broadband by 90 percent.

This idea is gaining some traction, at least in the United States. The U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture promoted it in a report published last fall. Around the same time, a lawmaker proposed a bill to implement it for all federal highway projects. However, the “dig once” policy is still not fully incorporated into federal, state, or local requirements and has yet to take hold elsewhere in the world.

3. Develop local content.

One of the most consistent ideas to emerge during this week’s meeting was that simply providing technical tools for Internet access isn’t sufficient. To welcome the next billion users, companies and technologists need to engage deeply with local communities to determine if and how they intend to use this access. That way, said the experts, networks can be built out in ways that best suit those purposes. In other words, responding to actual demand for the Internet is as important as devising new schemes to offer it.

One key part of that response is producing local content that is relevant to potential new users in their native languages. Many governments have begun to offer online services for employment, taxes, or licenses, which is one way to generate local content. Developers are also seeing success with local sites and apps that help people share with each other in a particular region. 

“You want to provide Internet access, but what do the end users really need?” Dilip Krishnaswamy, an IBM researcher based in Bangalore, India said. “Maybe they don’t care about the presidential election as much as they want to connect with each other.” India is a good example of the humongous potential demand for local material—it’s home to 1.2 billion people who speak 22 major languages.

All this new content must also be designed to work on devices that are available and popular in that area, rather than the latest smartphones used in Europe or the United States. During the meeting, experts at one table discussed obstacles to Internet use in Africa. They mentioned the ongoing challenge of simply charging devices in many parts of the continent. In response, someone tossed out the idea of hosting a hackathon devoted wholly to developing apps that consume as little power as possible.  

Editors note: This story was updated on April 15 to change “IEEE Internet Society” to “IEEE Internet Initiative.”

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