Digital inequalities based on wealth and geography are still prolific across Asia and the Pacific, says new UN study

Bangkok: While access to the Internet has enabled many to continue to work, learn and socialize while living with pandemic restrictions, connectivity remains a pipe dream for many people in poor, rural parts of Asia and the Pacific, according to a new study by ESCAP and the Alliance for Affordable Internet, Towards meaningful connectivity: insights from Asia-Pacific case studies.

Across the region, in poorer and less urbanized countries, infrastructure development and Internet use are lagging compared to the situation in richer, more urban states. This pattern is also visible at the subnational level, even in high-income countries, where city dwellers consistently have better Internet access than those living in less urban settings.

“Policymakers need to design and implement digital strategies in ensuring safe, inclusive, affordable, and reliable speed internet access for all,” said Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “Achieving sustainable socio-economic growth is possible with a sustained investment in reducing digital divide across the region.”

The report also reveals that meaningful connectivity – defined as access to a fast connection, an appropriate device, enough data and regular Internet use – is not solely tied to a country’s income level or population density. Domestic policies, such as introduction of competition in the mobile phone market and investments in education leading to improved digital literacy and Internet adoption, play important roles in achieving meaningful and affordable Internet connectivity.

In Bhutan, for example, fiber-optic networks were deployed along the electricity grid, which helped the country improve from having the lowest penetration rates among low- and lower-middle-income countries in the region in 2009 to reporting the second highest rate in 2019. Indonesia, through its universal service obligation and related funds, and subsequent increased competition in mobile and fixed wireless markets, now has the most affordable data among developing and emerging economies.

Today, social inclusion requires reliable and affordable Internet access, and the meaningful connectivity targets can serve as a useful framework for countries to evaluate whether equity is being achieved.

“We were delighted to partner with ESCAP to produce this important study on affordable and meaningful connectivity in the Asia Pacific region,” said Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet. “It provides a strong baseline to guide the design and implementation of policy actions that are urgently needed to advance meaningful access for all in the region. We look forward to strengthening our partnership to support these efforts.”