Closing Urban-Rural Digital Gap: Off Grid Technologies

In December 1984, Sir Donald Maitland issued his “The Missing Link” report that placed the connectivity disparity into the international consciousness.  In the 2000s this focus was relabeled the “Digital Divide.”  Initially viewed as a nation-to-nation issue, more recently the focus has shifted to an Urban-Rural issue. 

The focus has also been reshaped in several other ways.  Once dominated by voice, it now includes the Internet, even broadband.  Initially limited to fixed services, the dominant focus in now mobile. It is no longer just access, but also affordability.  And access now incorporates accessing value-added socioeconomic services—services tied directly to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).   

One of the key components of USAID’s Global Broadband and Innovations (GBI) program is closing this Urban-Rural divide.  There is still an estimated population of 1-1.5B without access or affordable access to mobile services—substantially more without broadband access.  The majority of those without access live in remote rural communities—populations often a priority for USAID programs. 

The GBI program addresses this divide through focused public and private sector engagements.

Public Sector Focus—the recent market explosion in mobile services has been the result of a global move towards market liberalization.  While figures differ, the mobile explosion has resulted in an estimated 5B+ mobile subscriber base. 

The two remaining current constraints are:

  1. access—where coverage hasn’t extending into rural communities, and
  2. affordability—where the costs are too high in proportion to income levels. 

The primary public sector engagement of the GBI that addresses these constraints centers on providing technical assistance (TA) in establishing new, or improving existing, universal service and access funds (USAFs).  Effectively these USAFs are taxes on the carriers that are placed into a government-managed fund, and redistributed back to the carriers in direct support of extending affordable rural access.  The GBI program is currently engaged in supporting several countries.   

Private Sector Focus—the predominant challenge for the mobile network operators (MNOs) with regards to extending services into rural communities is simply economics—higher costs of delivery and lower revenue potential.  Most MNOs have already reached beyond the power grid, so fuel costs and delivery, even security, are additional issues.

Fortunately a series of recent innovations are now entering the market that significantly lower the capital and operating costs for supporting these rural deployments.  Further, these innovations substantially reduce the power requirements—allowing for economically deploying clean energy solutions, be it solar, wind, or pico-hydro. 

The primary private sector engagements of the GBI program include working with these MNOs and equipment manufacturers of these newer technologies, in accelerating their adoption.  In addition, this work includes exploring and refining innovative business models more suitable for rural community-based small cell deployments.    

The GBI takes a position that we are on the verge of having the practice, technology, and business solutions, capable of eliminating the Urban-Rural divide with regards to extending access to both affordable mobile and broadband services.

GBI Contact Information

GBI Program Manager, Joe Duncan. 

Related Sectors of Work 

Last updated: August 17, 2012

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