Digital divide: a lesson in Bangkok held as part of a programme to help children with no access to online learning during the pandemic © Rungroj Yongrit/EPA/EFE/Shutterstock

Access to the internet is a basic human right, the United Nations declared in 2016. But, as the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted, it is a right that is still denied to billions of people at a time when connectivity has never been more important.

For professional classes in rich countries with good internet access and the ability to work from home, the crisis has been made infinitely easier thanks to Zoom video calls and Amazon deliveries. It has been a far more precarious existence for those who have manual jobs and children at home with no internet access. Across the world some 1.2bn students have been kept away from school or college.

That digital divide runs between countries. In Europe, 87 per cent of households enjoy internet access, while that figure is only 18 per cent in Africa. But it also runs between regions within countries, with remote rural and rundown urban communities often being cut off from the digital world. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 21m people in the US still lack access to broadband, although some researchers suggest it might be twice that number. Moreover, the divide runs between generations and social classes, disadvantaging the old and the poor.

One of the most effective responses to the coronavirus crisis would be for governments and businesses to help close that digital divide by connecting the unconnected and maximising the opportunities for the digitally enfranchised to work and learn. There are early and encouraging signs that some businesses are ready to play their part.

© Pau Barrena/ Getty

Chuck Robbins, the chairman and chief executive of Cisco, the US technology company, says the crisis has both highlighted the possibilities of remote working and learning and exposed the vulnerabilities of “left behind” communities that do not enjoy internet access. “I think that the opportunity is for companies to invest in education in these communities allowing them to work from home,” he says. The Business Roundtable of US chief executives, of which he is a leading member, will increasingly prioritise efforts to address social and racial inequalities, he adds.

Since 1997, Cisco has spent $3.7bn on its own Networking Academy that has offered digital skills training to 10.9m people in more than 180 countries. That training is available to anyone over the age of 13 but is particularly focused on underserved populations, including prisoners, veterans and people with disabilities. Mr Robbins says that some 3m people will pass through its academy this year. 

Of course, such initiatives are not entirely disinterested. The hope is that the further expansion of the internet will create additional demand for Cisco’s products and help the company hire talented employees, particularly given President Donald Trump’s latest visa crackdown on foreign workers entering the US.

Other business leaders are refocusing on these issues, too. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, describes broadband as the “electricity of the twenty-first century”. It is vitally important to widen access to the internet and train and reskill people to respond to the alarming rise in crisis-induced unemployment, he says. “The whole Covid experience has galvanised people and put a spotlight on the issue. It is a silver lining in this cloudy year.”

Wiring up the rest of the world and developing online training and education will require close collaboration between the private and the public sectors. But it also needs governments to ensure fair rules of the game and fiercer competition between private sector internet providers to cut the excessively high costs of broadband access in many parts of the world, including the US.

Ngaire Woods, professor of global economic governance at Oxford university, says that purpose-driven corporations can only succeed if they form an effective partnership with government. “It is very difficult to be purposeful when your competitors are much less purposeful and out compete you,” she told a British Academy conference last week.

As this crisis has made clear, internet access is a domestic lifeline, a source of information, education and entertainment and a means of economic, social and political empowerment. It is, as the UN affirms, a fundamental human right that should be available to all.

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