The world needs a digital lifeline

In periods of crisis, digital technologies provide a lifeline that keeps people, communities and businesses functioning. From the Covid-19 pandemic to violent conflicts and natural disasters, being connected has allowed us to continue working, learning and communicating.

How policymakers have responded to these emergencies has played a large part. In particular, as a new paper by the World Bank Group’s Development Committee shows, more agile regulation has accelerated digitalisation and unleashed innovation. In today’s global context of several overlapping crises, this needs to become the norm. Secure and resilient internet infrastructure is a fundamental necessity.

During the pandemic, as more and more of our lives went online, internet usage spiked worldwide. In 2020, 800 million people went online for the first time, and 58 low- and middle-income countries used digital payments to deliver Covid-19 relief. 

To manage that surge, governments and regulators in more than 80 countries moved quickly to change rules, including those governing the allocation of radio spectrum – the electromagnetic waves used for wireless communications. 

In Ghana, regulators assigned temporary radio spectrum to networks in high demand and all mobile-service providers were granted permission to expand coverage. This resulted in better-quality service for more than 30 million mobile subscribers, letting them “go” to work, learn online and access essential services.

Agile regulations have also helped digital technologies offer critical support to people in fragile and conflict situations. In Ukraine, the presence of a strong internet connection through satellite links, even while terrestrial infrastructure is under attack, has enabled the government to communicate with its citizens in real time. 

At the beginning of the war, shelling and cyberattacks were predicted to take down the internet but innovations such as the satellite hookups have kept the country online. Here, too, the Ukrainian government moved quickly to speed up permissions and adapt rules.

But a digital lifeline is effective only if it is safeguarded from cyberattack, something that Ukraine knows well. For many years, the country has been a testing ground for strikes on infrastructure. Hackers carried out waves of attacks that hit Ukraine’s distribution centres, call centres and power grid.

And it’s not just Ukraine. All countries are vulnerable to these incursions. The United States fell victim to cyberattacks last year which took down its largest fuel pipeline, leaving many Americans in long lines to fill their petrol tanks. And in Africa, Kenyan internet users endured more than 14 million malware incidents in 2020.

Like cyberattacks, nature can cause damage to communications infrastructure which demands an agile reaction. A volcanic eruption in January sent the island nation of Tonga into digital darkness. The eruption cut Tonga’s single undersea telecom cable and threw the country into 38 days of isolation from the internet and much of the outside world. This crisis has prompted discussions about how to strengthen the network and emergency-response systems, so Tongans are not at risk of digital darkness again.

To mitigate such vulnerabilities, boosting digitalisation needs to be a high priority even in periods of relative calm. Potentially transformative, yet fast-evolving, technologies require policymakers to promote financing, regulations and institutions that make it easier to test new ideas in real life. Some countries are starting to make progress. Kazakhstan is using agile regulation to digitalise, decentralise and decarbonise its vitally important energy operations.

Unlocking the potential of digitalisation for the masses through well-targeted regulation can also help close the digital divide and improve welfare. Recent research has shown that the availability of cheaper internet access increases employment among low-income households. 

Countries such as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Malaysia provide low-cost plans for poorer users. Digital access is essential for people all over the world, especially residents of under-connected rural areas, the poor, women and the displaced. In Nigeria and Tanzania, poverty rates fell by seven percentage points in areas with internet connections.

With the world facing multiple emergencies, policymakers need to mobilise digital connectivity to improve the daily welfare of the most vulnerable populations. Right now, innovation is moving so fast that many officials, especially in developing countries, are finding it hard to keep up and ensure that the benefits of digitalisation reach the people who need them most.

But we should not need a crisis to accelerate the transformation. Now is the time to build a digital lifeline – before the next disaster hits.

Read more about the World Bank’s work on digital development and the digital lifeline that proved crucial in the pandemic in this recent paper on digitalisation and development. — © Project Syndicate

Riccardo Puliti is vice-president for infrastructure at the World Bank.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Riccardo Puliti
Riccardo Puliti is vice-president for infrastructure at the World Bank.

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