Meaningful digital transformation: Preparing for the next decade

With ten years remaining before the target year of 2030 for the SDGs, and five years before the 2025 Broadband Commission Advocacy Targets, much action is needed. Digital inequality persists in a range of different forms, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought further attention to the gaps in digital infrastructure, digital skills, and safety and security as the world has been forced to live, work and learn remotely. This chapter focuses on preparing for the next decade: where we are heading and what needs to be done to succeed, both in terms of the 2025 Advocacy Targets as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals global agenda. A specific emphasis is on addressing lingering barriers to connecting the unconnected while taking into consideration the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis.

3.1 Persistent Digital Inequality

Digital inequality persists around the world, particularly gaps in universal access, even in countries with high-speed connectivity infrastructure. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the globe in the first half of 2020, stark disparities in access emerged into the spotlight as most countries in the world issued home quarantine measures, and workers, families and individuals relied on internet connectivity to communicate with the outside world and conduct commercial transactions.142 Though the world celebrated major internet connectivity milestones in 2019 , significant gaps and disparities in access and adoption of ICT remain both between countries and within. For example, the higher the level of overall human development of a country , the greater the access to technology. Digital divides between countries is greatest for high-speed fixed broadband subscriptions. See Figure 24.

Figure 24: Digital Divides by Human Development Index Groupings and by ICT, 2017

Figure 25: Concentration curves showing greater inequalities for advanced technologies124

Digital inequalities may also be widening within individual countries. Widespread requirements to shift to remote learning and remote working options for students and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly laid bare differences in network infrastructure, safety and readiness, as well as access to connectivity in both developed and developing countries. In the United States, differences in rural connectivity remain146 and some estimates, including from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), point to tens of millions of people without access to high speed internet in the country.147 Recent data from Pew Research Center from 34 different countries around the world show markedly different internet user adoption rates within each country based on age, education levels, and income.148

Within countries, digital inequality is particularly stark with regard to students’ lack of access to the internet. Based on monitoring by UNESCO, at least 190 countries closed schools and education institutions nationwide as a result of the COVID-19, impacting 1.6 billion students globally.149 Even in urban areas, many students do not have broadband access at home, or sufficient quality of service, and as a result of distance learning requirements put into place by their schools, are resorting to accessing internet connectivity outside of local restaurants and libraries that are continuing to broadcast Wi-Fi networks.150 Some school districts in the United States are custom fitting Wi-Fi enabled school buses and driving them through neighborhoods for students to access151 and a number of schools and libraries have introduced or expanded programs that provide Wi-Fi hotspot rental. See Box 5.

Box 5: The Mobile Citizen program providing hotspots to nonprofits

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Americans to work, learn, and entertain themselves from home. As a result of social distancing, there is significant increased interest in mobile hotspots programs, which can provide internet quickly and affordably to families.

Mobile Citizen, an EBS (Educational Broadband Service) success story is one such program. Championed by a Voqal, a national collaboration of EBS licensees, Mobile Citizen provides low-cost mobile internet with unlimited data plans exclusively to nonprofit organizations, educational entities, and social welfare agencies. Mobile Citizen’s service is available nationwide. Qualified organizations can apply to buy Mobile Citizen devices and service by providing proof of their nonprofit or educational entity status. Low cost devices are usually available under USD 75 (plus shipping) and service is offered at an annual rate of USD 120. Made possible by EBS, and at the equivalent of USD 10 a month for unlimited internet access, Mobile Citizen delivers service that provides more data and costs less than standard retail offers.

Mobile Citizen also partners with resellers that serve low-income individuals throughout the United States. Resellers pair Mobile Citizen’s low-cost unlimited internet service and devices with other programs such as refurbished computers and digital literacy training.

Mobile Citizen’s impact is significant. The organization serves over 350 nonprofits and nearly 135 educational entities, including school districts, daycares, and camps. As of March 31, 2019, the estimated subsidized service provided was USD 12.1M. Mobile Citizen is currently expanding its reach across the United States by partnering with organizations that service those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and the downturn in the economy. By working with schools and nonprofits to meet the needs of families in the areas of housing, food, education, and securing public resources, Mobile Citizen is dedicated to tackling the challenges of inequity head on.


The pandemic has heightened the risk of abuse and exploitation associated with children and young people spending more time online152. The technical note released this year by a number of organizations, “COVID-19 and its implications for protecting children online”, recommends that industry should detect and address any sort of abuse (classified as criminal activity) against children online to protect one third of all the Internet users, whom are children153.

Providing educators and children with digital competencies relating to child online safety and effective reporting mechanisms of inappropriate content or contacts on platforms used for education and games would contribute to reducing the escalating violence against children online. A meaningful digital world should be safe per design, built with children’s safety in mind. This is how the industry could play a prominent role in protecting children online154. See Box 6.

Box 6: Child Online Safety Universal Declaration

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the urgency in prioritizing protection of children online. There are more and younger children than ever before accessing the internet for learning, entertainment, gaming and socializing. This has heightened the risk of child abuse and exploitation online. According to NCMEC and Europol, it has led to a significant increase in the number of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) images and videos reported by tech companies.

Together we can support child-friendly digital services and cybersecurity measures to protect systems and platforms used by children. And we can promote educational campaigns and the training of children, educators and parents in online safety. We can join forces, and, through collective action, we can tackle child online safety by providing a safer online environment for children and by blocking the proliferation of child abuse content over the Internet, all as an integral part of the public good that our institutions do every day.

As Broadband Commissioners, we invite all private and public sector entities, and non-governmental organizations to sign this Universal Child Online Safety declaration, based on their respective roles and mandates, and demonstrate their commitment to collaborate in their actions to ensure that all children can be safer online.

The ITU also released the 2020 Child Online Protection (COP) Guidelines which are a comprehensive set of recommendations for all relevant stakeholders on how to contribute to the development of a safe and empowering online environment for children and young people. Targeting children, parents and educators, industry and policy-makers, the COP Guidelines are meant to act as a blueprint, which can be adapted and used in a way that is consistent with national or local customs and laws.

In developing countries, the impact on school age children is magnified. In Sri Lanka, less than 40% of households with school-aged children have any sort of internet-connected device, and less than 52% have any sort of internet connection.155 The risk of a digital divide also exists in highly connected countries and, for example, in Singapore the government introduced the NEU PC Plus156 program to address this. Launched in 1999, the program has been continually enhanced to address the evolving needs of low-income households with students or person with disabilities the opportunity to own a new digital device at an affordable price and free fiber broadband. It has helped more than 63,000 beneficiaries to date. In addition, Singapore also rolled out the Home Access Programme to support low-income households without school-going children with subsidized broadband, and these households could bundle the fiber broadband with device bundles as options. Since its launch in 2014, more than 14,000 beneficiaries have benefitted.

Additionally, heavy reliance on mobile data for access to the internet for many students makes learning from home cost-prohibitive in many countries such as the Philippines157 while anecdotes from around the world are highlighting the lengths that students are going to access connectivity to continue their schooling and education at a distance. More can be done to improve affordability and digital skills preparedness among parents and children in order to break the cycle, and introduce the most vulnerable communities to the digital world smoothly and in a safer way.

Box 7: Working Group on 21st Century Financing and Funding Models for Sustainable Broadband Development

The UN Broadband Commission Working Group for 21st Century Financing and Funding Models for Sustainable Broadband Development is a cross-sector group of thought-leaders with representation from national regulatory authorities, telecommunications operators, digital internet players, financial institutions, trade associations, academics and not-for-profit development organizations operating under the auspices of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. It is co-chaired by Scott Gegenheimer, Group CEO – Operations of Zain Group, and Bocar A. Ba, CEO of SAMENA Telecommunications Council.

The Working Group has a mandate to explore and identify new and innovative funding, financing and investment strategies to address the challenge of extending broadband connectivity and services to the 3.6 billion people who remain unconnected today particularly in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands. Moreover, a significant proportion of micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses do not have sufficient connectivity to participate in the digital revolution meaningfully.

The goal of the Working Group is to provide governments and policymakers with a set of policy recommendations for consideration to foster innovative funding, financing and investment strategies which can enable and empower existing and new business models to achieve the Commission’s targets for broadband connectivity and adoption. To achieve this goal, the Working Group will study and explore different approaches in a technology- and business model-agnostic and objective manner to develop a set of policy recommendations for consideration. This may include examining how existing and new funding and investment models, including financing, can be adapted, augmented and expanded for the 21st-century digital economy, and where relevant, to address existing barriers to investment and funding.