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Bridge the digital divide to promote inclusion

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Steve Alexander, SVP and CTO at Ciena, calls for stronger digital inclusion initiatives

In the past 18 months, our devices, and the networking infrastructure that connects them, have enabled a significant portion of the global population to work, learn, shop and socialise wherever they are. Many of us were instructed to stay at home, to work from home and to educate our children from home – only stepping outside when it was a necessity. We have relied more than ever on the internet, our digital devices and cloud-based services to keep us connected – but this, in turn, has exposed the digital divide like never before.

While the pandemic has certainly pushed forward digital initiatives for many governments and organisations, it has also spotlighted the stark difference when crossing the divide. Even in the UK, not everyone has access to the latest devices, the digital skills and know-how – or to the same broadband service levels. The reality is that across the country, outside the urban hubs, the divide forms a barrier that many children and adults are facing.

Building and maintaining a reliable network is always an expensive undertaking. However, in rural areas that cost is a much bigger obstacle because of the limited returns that service providers can obtain in more sparsely populated places. Service providers will be building and maintaining the same quality network that services a city, but as we start to move more into the countryside the population density starts to decrease rapidly – meaning fewer users and, therefore, a much-reduced ability to recover the costs of building the network. In order to recoup the costs, providers must often deploy new technologies in dense urban areas first, in order to generate revenue from the greater population of paying customers, and then look towards local subsidies or national initiatives to make rural deployments affordable.

With the internet increasingly used in almost every area of our lives, digital inclusion really matters. Lack of access can limit an individual’s choice of profession and affect potential lifetime earnings, and it can hinder education. This means those with plentiful access are well positioned to succeed – excluding those with limited digital connectivity. Students, in particular, are vulnerable to losing the confidence and skills needed to thrive in a digitally connected environment, as a result of the impact the digital divide has on educational equality. While this was certainly a frustrating reality before, it has now greatly affected a significant portion of the roughly 1.5 billion students globally who have been navigating school closures and relying on their internet connection for virtual learning.

As tech leaders, we all must take the opportunity to step up and help deliver connectivity by creating stronger digital inclusion initiatives.

Telecoms organisations have made significant strides when it comes to improving the capacity and reliability of existing networks, while making them cheaper to deploy. This has led to some improvements in the connectivity experienced by rural populations, but we still have some ways to go. By coming together with private and public sector partners, we can create more opportunities for the population that is most at risk of falling behind the digital curve – and investments in the next generation are investments in the future of our global economy. Access to the internet — and the necessary devices to use it — are the foundation for opportunity, inclusion and innovation.

Investing in the underlying infrastructure

In order to be ready for the next wave of technology and associated economic prosperity, the infrastructure for digital inclusion must be in place within a community. Thankfully, governments all over the world are driving initiatives focused on helping to build out the underlying infrastructure in rural communities. In the UK, the Good Things Foundation is driving a programme aimed at investing £130 million over the next four years to bring internet connectivity to 4.5 million residents.

To ensure that rural communities are well equipped to deal with the current (and the foreseeable) digital reality, providers should also look to prioritise the use of an adaptive fibre infrastructure, underpinned by analytics and intelligent software, that can meet the changing demands placed on it by businesses and the public. This kind of technology is not only accessible, it’s also affordable – facilitating the service of less densely populated areas.

Get devices into the hands of the next generation

The second part of the solution involves ensuring more households are equipped with the tools they need to support the digital development of the younger generations. This is something we are starting to see more momentum towards: the UK government issued laptops and tablets to help disadvantaged children throughout the global pandemic. But this is something we can also see companies doing through corporate social responsibility programmes – and it is something we are doing at Ciena.

Recently, we announced our partnership with an amazing London-based organisation, Academy Achievers, in which we set aside laptops to be delivered to schools in London. The organisation is focused on closing the digital and educational gap by working with students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. Initiatives such as this, if encouraged across the country, can have a real, long-lasting impact.

Systemic digital inequality, and the circumstances of the past 18 months, are things that many have found difficult to work around. Special attention must be paid to everyone who is suffering from the digital divide – from helping to teach entry-level digital skills, through to supporting those who are already connected and are well versed in online learning. From the infrastructure to the homes, investment should be considered by the entire telecoms industry – and from technology leaders across the board – in order to guarantee a digital and inclusive future.

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