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[Read more session reports from the WSIS Forum 2018]

The session was moderated by Ms Renata Avila, Web Foundation, Guatemala. In her opening remarks she reminded the participants about the four billion people who are still disconnected from the Internet and are unable to follow this session online. Avila noted that it is a privilege to be at the meeting and that ‘with privilege comes huge responsibility and huge opportunity as well’.

Mr Boyan Radoykov, chief of section for universal access and preservation at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said that the digital divide goes far beyond technology. ‘It's much more about content, about ethics, it is about the political will to fill this divide with constructive proposals’. He went on to break down the world ‘safe’ for cyberspace: ‘S’ stands for security in using, ‘A’ for affordability of information and services, ‘F’ for freedom of expression and access, and ‘E’ for ethics and equitability. Radoykov said that UNESCO has two objectives: to increase the access to qualitative content and information, and to preserve documentary heritage, including digital forms.

Avila asked Mr Rashid Ismailov, deputy minister of telecom and mass communication of Russia, about the basic element of digital economy and the possibility of providing affordable and safe access to information and knowledge. He said that the basic element of the digital economy is access to broadband services and a stable network infrastructure. Moreover, he said that there is a humanitarian aspect of the digital economy: ‘we are talking about the new economy and people in this new economy, and the challenges, threats, and benefits that this new economy brings’. Finally, he mentioned the third basic element – traditional economy itself. ‘The digital one is or will be an integral part of the bigger economy … [traditional economy] should harmonise with it’.

Mr Shahzad Gul Aryobee, minister of communications and information technologies of Afganistan, spoke about bridging the digital divide in Afghanistan and its effects on the population. He mentioned the consequences of the civil war on the technology development in the country. The majority of Afghani people cannot afford stable Internet access. Moreover, most of them do not know how to use it, nor what its benefits are. Gul Aryobee noted that the fiber infrastructure in the country still needs more coverage, especially in remote areas. He expressed his wish to improve the situation because the new generation of Afghani youth is very passionate about information technology (IT), but there is still a lot of work to be done for the empowerment of women and girls. The Afghani government is working to create a ‘one stop shop’ for public services. Finally, he mentioned the lack of content in local language.

Avila invited Ms Aurelie Adam-Soule Zoumarou, ministry of digital economy and communication of Benin, to speak about reducing the digital divide between the rural and urban populations. She responded by explaining that the absence of a digital divide could be achieved by giving the possibility to all citizens, irrespective of where they live, access to public services online, saving them from having to travel long distances and waste time. As for the connectivity issue, Zoumarou stated that in several months time, Benin will have 57 out of its 77 communes connected to the Internet.

Mr Dina Nath Dhungyel, minister of information and communications of Bhutan, spoke about their governmental policy towards ICT. He noted that Bhutan’s development philosophy revolves around the happiness of its people. He then talked about the Thimphu TechPark established in 2011, which attracts direct foreign investments. The minister also mentioned that the government gives subsidies such as tax holidays, concessional Internet availability, and reduced power costs to companies in the technology park. In addition, employees of the international companies can reside within the park. Today, the park has companies from Switzerland, Canada, Australia, India, and Bangladesh.

Avila went on to ask Ms Jane Coffin, director for development strategy at the Internet Society, what the challenges of connecting the next billion are, and how policy makers can support local communities. Coffin spoke about the change from the traditional business model to the emergence of community networks – bottom up networks built by communities for communities with communities. Which is why, according to her, traditional regulatory policies need to change, ‘more access to spectrum for these networks, new agile licensing policies, social purpose licenses for indigenous communities in particular’. She raised the issue of universal service funds. They absorb billions of dollars that can be used for establishing connectivity. Finally, she emphasised the importance of listening to the local people and ‘training local people to train local people to keep that expertise local’.

Avila asked Ms Aarti Holla, secretary-general of the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) how governments can reduce the digital divide and how we can turn the 5G dilemma into an opportunity. Holla responded by mentioning that each country has fundamental differences in terms of geography, topography, socioeconomic and demographic differences – all that define the digital divides. By 2020, only 63% of the world will be connected. Solutions to overcome this rate include fixed networks, mobile phones, wi-fi, and satellites. ‘Satellites are particularly useful for digital divides because they are blind to national boundaries, they are blind to political regimes, they do not discriminate between people who live in urban areas or in rural areas, they can see the whole territory’. Despite satellites being available everywhere, they are not being used.  Governments are not aware of the advantages, have high import duties in place or unfavorable licensing regimes, or are not using their universal funds to deploy these technologies. As for 5G, ‘we have the impression that everybody has a mobile phone … and it is far from reality. If anything, 5G should make the subject of digital divide even more pressing so that the divide doesn't turn into a digital chaos’.

Dr  Andre Laperriere, executive director of the Global Open Data Initiative for Agriculture and Nutrition, spoke about the role technology and data gaps play in reducing the digital divide. He recalled the perception present 20 years ago about rich north countries with ‘big computers’ and the rest of the world ‘with nothing’. But today we have cloud computing and the spread of mobile technologies, and now, the digital divide has to deal with data use and make it open to everyone.

Avila ended by asking Ms Sonja Betschart, co-founder and chief entrepreneurship officer of WeRobotics whether we have a digital robot divide and why local robotics matter. Betschart replied by stating the benefits of civilian drones for agriculture, social goods, disaster management and relief, public health, and nature conservation. She went on to provide three reasons why robotics is important. Firstly, it addresses local issues and needs. Secondly, emerging technologies create new economies, businesses, and jobs. Thirdly, local robotics creates local ecosystems based on the specific needs of population. The biggest challenge for local robotics is a lack of understanding of the value of using drones by developing countries. Another problem is unfavorable policies and regulatory frameworks for professional drone usage.


By Stadnik Ilona