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Analyst Angle: Digital inclusion–The key to prosperous and smart cities

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At the dawn of the 5G and the Internet of Everything era, one would easily assume that most people are already well connected with broadband access, especially in urban areas. If things and clothes are becoming connected, then the large majority of humans must naturally be so already?

Apparently not, according to study published today by the Wireless Broadband Alliance(WBA) to mark World Wi-Fi Day. This 2nd edition report presents the findings of research conducted by IHS Markit on behalf of the WBA regarding the state of the urban unconnected population in eight major cities as well as each of their related countries. The report addresses the question as to why there are still many urban unconnected and what initiatives are being taken among the various stakeholders to address this important issue which has wide social, political and economic ramifications.

The conclusions presented take into consideration an analysis of urban broadband adoption at both the city and rural levels. Some of the key conclusions of the study which is available for free download are:

  • 1.75bn citizens in the world’s eight richest countries (by GDP) remain unconnected – with 34% residing in major urban centers
  • Among the cities analyzed in this research (Sao Paulo, Delhi, London, Moscow, and New York City), London has the lowest percentage of unconnected population (7.11% of total population) and is consequently leading the creation of a connected society.
  • Delhi and Sao Paulo have the largest number of unconnected citizens. 29% (5.331 million) of the population of Delhi are unconnected, 36% in Sao Paolo, (4.349 million) are unconnected
  • 19% of people in New York City are unconnected (1.600 million), while 17% of people in Moscow are unconnected (2.154 million)

Social and digital divide

For the purpose of this study, an unconnected individual was defined as an individual who does not have access to or cannot afford broadband connectivity. Urban citizens are unconnected either because they cannot afford to, or because there is a lack of broadband coverage.

In cities located in developed countries, broadband coverage is generally not an issue. Lack of connectivity is due to a mix of lack of purchasing power and IT literacy which usually are well correlated. The situation is slightly different in large cities located in developing countries such as Brazil or India where there is a greater lack of mobile and broadband coverage in poorer neighborhoods for the very same reason that operators prefer to deploy their expensive infrastructure in high-end areas where consumers can afford the high cost of the mobile devices and broadband services.

As shown in the graph below, there is a strong correlation between the percentage of urban unconnected and level of wealth as measured by the average monthly salary. The social divide does indeed shape the digital divide.

In New York, one of the greatest barriers to connectivity is the quality and affordability of internet connections while for Londoners, IT skills and an understanding of the benefits provided by being connected are, along with spending power, key challenges to internet adoption. Moscow has faced specific challenges related to infrastructure, developing an integrated approach to promoting internet adoption, and ensuring a high standard and quality of internet services.

The study also highlights an interesting development where the digital divide between rural and urban areas is shrinking in developed countries.  The more mature markets such as the UK and Germany have reached a more balanced scenario between the percentages of urban and rural unconnected.

Foundation for smart cities

Modern cities are increasingly embarking on the “smart cities” movement as a means of alleviating challenges stemming from urbanization, demographic change, changing lifestyles and climate change.

For smart cities to be successful, they need the active involvement of their citizens who in turn need to see the concrete benefits of using such digital city services.

As a result, cities are promoting the development of applications aimed at addressing real citizen needs.

For instance, Moscow has some 200 of its public services online while London has some 500 datasets open and available online which, combined with connected citizens, allows for people to have a direct participation in the city’s life, saving time and money when dealing with city services.

Cities are working to increase digital inclusion: the problem of the digital divide has many roots, from financial to socio-cultural reasons, and cities are tackling them with multiple initiatives from deploying Wi-Fi hotspots to free IT courses and financing programs.

Wi-Fi at center stage

Wi-Fi plays a central role in smart city infrastructure, since it is the primary medium for connectivity in urban environments, carrying actually more traffic than any other type of wireless access network.  Cities have started a number of initiatives to leverage the power of Wi-Fi to reduce the number of urban unconnected and promote their digital services to citizens.

Among the initiatives to expand digital inclusion, Delhi plans to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots across the city. In London, LinkUK aims at having a significant impact on multiple aspects of citizens’ lives by bringing ultrafast connectivity at the street level. In Moscow, a free public Wi-Fi network is now available across the city’s transportation system and stops including in the subway, on trolley buses, and on trams. The city did not have to embark in the cost of deploying the Wi-Fi network which was deployed by telecoms operators and is supported by an advertisement-based revenue model. Examples elsewhere include LinkNYC in New York, “Wi-Fi Livre” in Sao Paulo and many others which aim at increasing digital inclusion.

Thus, reducing the digital divide within the city is equally key to enabling prosperous and smart Cities. A connected city needs connected citizens and is a requisite towards the true development of a smart city; that is a city, which provides a healthy, participative, prosperous and safe environment to all its citizens.

The full white paper, entitled ‘The Urban Unconnected’, is available to download here

About World Wi-Fi Day

World Wi-Fi Day,  taking place on 20th June, was launched by the WBA in 2016 to help accelerate the deployment of affordable connectivity globally. The initiative encourages cities and government bodies, as well as operators, service providers, technology vendors and internet giants, to come together to deliver connectivity to everyone, everywhere.

At its core, World Wi-Fi Day serves as a unique global platform for companies, cities, and technology partners to introduce and share services that will play a key role in connecting communities around the world.

The HOPE for Connectivity Charter is the foundation of World Wi-Fi Day. It calls on cities, government bodies, fixed and mobile operators, technology vendors and internet giants  to help bridge the digital divide and create the critical influence to bring wireless connectivity by pledging  support to the initiative.

It draws attention to four key themes that will help improve connectivity on a global basis:

Help: to fund Wi-Fi deployments that will connect unconnected communities around the world

Offer: more affordable Wi-Fi access to the unconnected communities in both rural and urban areas

Promote: the success of Wi-Fi in connecting cities and communities

Engage: and recognize the role of Wi-Fi in addressing the digital divide

For more information on World Wi-Fi Day, please click here  

 

 

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