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The panel provided an overview of current issues and good practices with examples ranging from Pakistan, Germany, and Italy to Tunisia, Ghana, and Argentina. Starting from the notion that the Internet is often referred to as ‘being a human right’, but that reality does not seem to match this statement, the panel provided input on how to approach the relationship between basic infrastructure and digital inclusion. It was put forward that the digital divide is far from being a connectivity issue. So where does the issue lie?
Approaching the question of digital inclusion means understanding that many of those not yet connected to the Internet are communities with pre-existing economic exclusions. Fostering a meaningful digital inclusion would include enabling the excluded to take advantage of all the opportunities the Internet can bring to their communities, most importantly economic access, and this goes far beyond simple communication. Facilitating locations with free Internet as areas for communities to congregate is not just a question of technical connectivity, but also of creating social spaces.
Ms Ursula Owusu-Ekuful (Minister for Communications, Ghana) stated that the priorities of Africa’s digital inclusion should be sharing infrastructure to provide lower costs, linking up systems to provide connectivity across the continent, and providing digital skills necessary for the future of public services. Ghana's Universal Service Fund (USF) is utilising a technology mix. It is not just focusing on infrastructure, but is providing digital skills which will enable people to use infrastructure, training people in various local languages, and providing devices that can use all the resources at hand. USF has developed a keyboard which provides training in around 30 different languages.
Mr Miguel Estrada (General Manager, Latin American and Caribbean ccTLDs Organization (LACTLD)) also spoke of content availability in local languages and dialects. In this regard he pointed out LACTLD’s work on developing internationalised domain names (IDN) so that registrants of domain names can own domains in their own language with their own characters.
In addition to availability, affordability was one of the recurring topics of the panel. Estrada spoke on the importance of Internet exchange points, which allow faster and cheaper Internet. Mr Makhdoom Hasim Jawan Bakht (Minister of Finance, Pakistan) spoke about the financial aspects of digital inclusion in Pakistan, a country predicted of having 1.6 billion mobile users by 2025, putting it among the top five countries in the world. He pointed out the work of Pakistan’s Universal Service Fund through which citizens can report back to the government about their needs. He said that this has immensely improved service delivery. The system has proved to be extremely beneficial since it helped streamline processes, remove bottlenecks, resulting in smoother business dealings, improved procedures, and money-saving.
As for Western European countries, panellists pointed out that even in rich countries, such as Germany, good infrastructure is still not evenly distributed and mostly focuses on large cities. The efforts of the German Broadband Association (BREKO), the largest association of fixed-line carriers, include working on increasing broadband connections in rural areas. Ms Paola Pisano (Minister for Technological Innovation and Digitisation, Italy) was of the opinion that to confront digital inclusion, in addition to developing infrastructure there needs to be a stronger connection between the public and private sector as to efficiently confront issues of authentication, connectivity, and governance of broadband Internet. She feels solutions can be reached through public services offering single IDs to citizens and through improving digital skills which Italy has been doing through the project Digital Republic.
In conclusion, what should constitute digital inclusion is affordable access, digital skills, sharing infrastructure, using local languages, and community driven solutions. Additionally, one should understand the differences and specificities of infrastructure issues in Western Europe and developing countries. This was summarised in the closing remark of Ms Pinky Kekana (Deputy Minister of Communications, South Africa) who stated: ‘One of the things that we should also leave the IGF with, especially as stakeholders, is that we have the sustainable development goals (SDGs). There was a 0.7 commitment by developed countries to assist developing countries. We really have to ensure that that gross national income of companies really gets given to developing countries.’
By Darija Medić