Current business models need to be modified and wide-ranging reforms put in place to connect rural and remote areas to the internet, according to a new report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
In the report, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICT) examined solutions for connecting rural and remote areas and small island states. It also looked at demand, cost, and financing mechanisms for the deployment of ICTs; relevant technologies, services, and applications; and capacity building as well as enabling policies. The report is based on contributions from representatives of ITU member states, industry, and the academe.
ITU estimates that at the end of 2019, a bit more that 51% of the global population, or 4 billion people, use the internet.
In Asia and the Pacific, 45% use the internet. However, only 36% of households in rural areas have access to the internet, as against 70% of households in urban areas.
ITU wants to improve connectivity in rural and remote areas as access to communication services is a prerequisite for inclusive growth in the rural areas and to improve the quality of people's lives. Deploying rural connectivity is also key to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Empowering rural and remote communities with digital skills can also curb rural-to-urban migration in the age groups between 15 and 55 years, ITU says.
BIMP-EAGA also wants to improve connectivity in the subregion, which covers remote areas of member countries Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—all ITU members. Targeting 100% broadband coverage by 2025 to spur development in remote and less developed areas, BIMP-EAGA countries have deployed a private sector-led project that will link all four countries using a hybrid communications platform either through sub-sea cable, satellite, or terrestrial systems.
However, ITU says there is no one-size-fits-all model for financing rural connectivity and engaging all stakeholders. Nor is there one solution in terms of the technology that can be used.
It notes the need for further studies focusing on access to broadband services and how emerging technologies can be used to transform rural and remote areas into digital economies. It says rural and remote communities can best benefit from e-education, e-agriculture, financial inclusion (e-banking), and e-health.
The report says one of the challenges in connecting rural and remote areas is difficult geographical access and inadequate power and good road infrastructure.
Low demand for telecoms services or technology solutions due to low consumer incomes and sparse populations, which discourages investment in ICTs in rural and remote areas, is another challenge.
High license fees and delays in land-use approvals as well as steep taxes and levies are also barriers as they push up the operating costs of investors and operators.
Another challenge is that competing service providers are wary of sharing infrastructure construction and installation costs.
Here are some measures ITU recommended to improve connectivity in remote and rural areas:
- Explore public-private partnerships (PPPs) to fund ICT projects. PPPs are ideal for huge infrastructure projects, the report says, noting Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have invested in undersea cables and other ICT projects, either on their own or in partnership with public corporations and private ICT operators. Countries also need to explore other financing models, like funding from financial institutions, support from a universal service fund, government subsidies, and regional cooperation.
- Foster cooperation among telecoms, energy, and transport regulators, municipalities, and local authorities in formulating policies. This is vital since building ICT infrastructure is dependent on the availability of power and access road networks, which need to be developed as a prerequisite for creating robust and reliable infrastructure. Countries are also encouraged to share infrastructure investment.
- Allocate financing from universal service funds—money collected from telcos and earmarked to promote universal access to telecommunications services—to assist the energy and transport sectors. This ensures power and transport infrastructure are available when ICT infrastructure is rolled out.
- Adopt pro-investment and balanced policies. Generally, telecommunication operators pay high taxes and levies, which increase operating costs. The report says tax breaks and duty breaks can entice businesses to increase their investment in rural infrastructure. Such policies can also support efforts by operators to provide affordable internet services.
- Adopt a wider range of technological solutions, including emerging technologies, like the Internet of Things (IoT), digital financial services, and e-commerce to encourage innovation and broadband deployment in rural and remote areas.
- Promote policies that will encourage the creation of local content to stimulate internet demand. This entails digital skills training for local communities. Once rural communities become familiar with the use of ICT solutions, they are likely to start sharing local knowledge systems and generate content that can assist their communities. Policies that encourage the setup of innovation hubs and innovation programs can also encourage the creation of local content.
- Establish community telecenters or information centers where computers with internet access are provided to the public. Citing case studies in some member countries, ITU says these centers help train communities become ICT literate.