How the 5G wireless dividend can help connect those left behind
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How the 5G wireless dividend can help connect those left behind

Private, public, and civil society actors should work together to encourage more sustainable financing of universal access efforts

Access to communication and information tools and platforms, including digital platforms, is essential to enable us all to exercise our human rights. In today’s world, fully exercising basic rights such as the right to freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of assembly, or to private communication without real access to digital, internet-based communication is inconceivable. Furthermore, our ability to exercise these basic communication rights is critical to enable us to exercise other human rights, such as the right to access to justice or to education, because it enables us to understand our rights and responsibilities and denounce abuse, therefore making access to digital communication platforms critical.

Nevertheless, access to digital communication varies widely across developed and developing countries. While developed countries like Canada are in the midst of a transition between 4G to 5G networks that promises to open up a broad range of new possibilities—such as the Internet of Things (IoT)—as a result of 5G’s ability to handle massive amounts of data[1], some 3.4 billion people, mainly in developing countries, are still offline[2].

This disparity presents a dilemma for people (policy-makers, activists, researchers) and organizations (private sector, governments, international organizations) working for the democratization of communication and information everywhere: how do help unleash the full potential of open and accessible communication and information brought about by 5G wireless while also working towards affordable and accessible digital communication for all?

Driven by the principle of solidarity and by the promise of economic and human development made possible as a result of greater connectivity, those who stand to gain the most in terms of the profits made possible by the 5G revolution should take a leadership role in helping to bring affordable and robust internet access to all, especially the most marginalize people in developing countries. Embracing and reinvigorating Universal Service and Access Funds is one way to do more in that direction.

The 5G dividend
The digital transformation of the past 20 years has had a major economic impact. For the media and advertising industry, for example, the rise of digital internet-based services translated to major disruption, as revenue shifted from media companies to Internet companies such as Google and Facebook; today these two companies have a market share of 63% of the total global advertising market, roughly USD $61.6 billion per year[3].

A similar situation may take place as 5G wireless connectivity becomes the norm in developed economies over the next few years, mainly as a result of the likely rise of new businesses and increased productivity.

We’re looking at a world where not just all people are connected but all things are, too: cars will be connected to roads, patients and their medical devices to their doctors and smart cities will offer all new connected services to residents and workers. And 5G will be the key to unlocking the nascent demand for IoT… the number of 5G connections around the world will have hit 1.3 billion by 2025, amounting to around 40 percent, or 2.7 billion, of the world’s people.[4].

This shift will have major economic consequences. For example, the share of European GDP linked to mobile technologies is set to rise from 3.3% in 2017 to 4.1 in 2022, at a time when 5G connectivity is expected to booming in Europe[5]. The global economic impact of 5G is expected to reach USD 12 trillion by 2035[6].

Reinvigorating Universal Service and Access Funds
Many people around the world live in remote, rural, or impoverished communities that lack robust Internet infrastructure and services. This is the result of, among other things, the fact that for large telecommunication companies, providing services in these communities may not make economic sense.

In order to address this situation, many countries around the world have set up Universal Service and Access Funds (USAF) to help bring telecommunication services to these types of communities. USAFs are funds made up of contributions made by telecommunication companies and administered by the state. USAFs are meant to help address access gaps by setting up telecom services that will eventually become commercially viable.

However, not all countries have USAFs, and in the cases where USAFs exist, they are often underutilized. For example, only 23 of 54 countries in Africa have active USAFs[7]. Crucially, USAFs have great potential to support community-managed networks to meet the connectivity needs of rural or remote communities, but so far they have mostly failed to deliver[8].

In this context, USAFs should receive greater attention in the context of internet governance as they represent a concrete mechanism to help address access gaps. Private, public, and civil society actors should work together to encourage more sustainable contributions to national USAFs, to promote the establishment of a global mechanism for telecoms and companies benefitting from 5G from developed countries to contribute towards a global-level USAF, and to promote greater transparency in the management of USAFs.

The inherent challenges of this approach are many, from political will to infrastructure gaps to technical issues. However, by balancing a sense of solidarity, pragmatism, and the promise of economic growth made possible by universal connectivity, much can be done to halt the emergence of a new digital divide.

[1] Shulz, Yogi, 2019. 5G opens new possibilities for businesses. IT World Canada.

[2] World Econonomic Forum, 2019. More than half of the world’s population is still offline. Here’s what we’re doing about it. World Economic Forum.

[3] Oghia, Michael J. Governing Digital Convergence: An Issue Paper on Media Development and Internet Governance. Global Forum for Media Development.

[4] Harri, Steve, 2018. The trillion-dollar race: what 5G means to the global economy. Orange Business Services

[5] Harri, Steve, 2018. The trillion-dollar race: what 5G means to the global economy. Orange Business Services

[6] Rosenberg, Don, 2018. How 5G will change the world. World Economic Forum.

[7] World Wide Web Foundation, 2018. UNIVERSAL SERVICE AND ACCESS FUNDS: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide.

[8] Carlos Baca, Luca Belli, Erick Huerta & Karla Velasco, 2018. Community Networks in Latin America: Challenges, Regulations and Solutions. Internet Society.

Photo: Kheng Guan Toh/Shutterstock

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