Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The expression "digital divide" was first coined nearly 20 years ago. Yet today four of every seven people in the world are still not connected to the internet, despite a clear understanding that “connectivity” is a global development accelerator in all areas – social, economic and political.

Connectivity is key in today’s technological world. For the development community, it is increasingly clear that the digital divide is becoming a development divide that, if left unaddressed, could substantially increase inequities both between and within countries. The vast majority of the unconnected are the urban poor, marginalized groups and rural communities—precisely the groups the development community is most trying to assist, and those who will risk falling even further behind if left without access.

So, what are the barriers preventing access? Research finds significant consensus: lack of infrastructure, low incomes and affordability, user capabilities (i.e. basic literacy and digital literacy) and incentives (i.e. cultural and social acceptance of internet use, awareness and understanding of the Internet, and available and attractive local content).

A key part of that “infrastructure” is affordable and reliable access to electricity. Power is a crucial element at all stages of providing internet access: from running backhaul services to the core of the network and base stations, to powering the devices consumers use to get online. Yet, across much of the developing world, reliable electricity remains expensive, hard to get (and often unreliable), or totally non-existent.

Without access to electricity in the home, connecting to internet services is a significant challenge, primarily due to the difficulty and cost of device charging. According to Facebook, even though people might live in communities covered by 3G networks, their smartphone use will be limited if they lack electricity at home. Off-grid consumers travel up to 15 kilometers per week to charge their phones at small kiosks. Depending on the location, kiosk charging can constitute over a third of the total cost ($2-7 per month) of owning an internet-capable device, and a significant portion of household income. Such conditions make daily charging prohibitive and curb smartphone ownership and use. If current trends continue, lack of electricity access will continue to act as a significant barrier to universal connectivity.

Diesel generators remain the main source of electricity for mobile network operators (MNOs) in the many areas where commercial "grid" power is not available. More than a million cellular towers in developing countries are off-grid, or have at best extremely unreliable grid supply. These towers typically rely on diesel generators for primary power during large parts of the day to avoid service interruptions. Highly polluting, these generators are expensive to run and maintain, despite significant improvement in the energy efficiency of network equipment. Alternative technologies and renewable energy solutions (e.g. solar) can provide substantial cost savings over time, but their take-up by operators has been limited by relatively high up-front cost and by the high power requirements of traditional mobile equipment.

But innovation has already significantly increased the power efficiency of mobile network equipment, and improvements in distributed renewables, especially steep declines in solar and storage, are also enabling new solutions.

Composed of a mix of solar, diesel generator, and batteries, hybrid power systems can save MNOs or tower operators up to 54% of the energy cost for an off-grid tower that a conventional diesel generator would incur. Realizing the potential of telecom towers to act as anchor customers for rural mini-grids, OMC Power and other private developers are making remote cellular networks cheaper and cleaner to operate, and also extending electricity service to nearby communities and businesses.

Mobile technology is an increasingly powerful tool in the quest to connect rural communities and accelerate progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Via mobiles, communities can gain access to a host of services, markets and information, from banking, radio, television, agriculture and commerce. Mobile-enabled utility solutions can make a real difference to communities’ clean water, sanitation and affordable energy, which consequently have an impact on education, health and income generation. Mobile-enabled utility services can also help drive women’s digital and financial inclusion, and empower them as local entrepreneurs or sales agents.

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar is a flagship example of how mobile technology can help to make clean energy affordable, and create sustainable business models. The model emerged from a convergence of several mobile technologies—mobile payments, M2M connectivity and cloud computing—and is beginning to achieve impressive commercial scale, says GSMA.

As a further sign of the convergence of electricity access and connectivity, France's Orange will start selling solar energy kits in several African countries this year that can light up a home, charge mobile phones and power a radio or TV. The operator already sells the kits in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar, where it has teamed up with local partners to develop the product. Orange worked with UK-based company BBOXX to build the kit in the DRC, and d.light in Madagascar. It will next launch in Burkina Faso, working with Niwa, while extending its BBOXX collaboration to Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Senegal by June. Mobile giant Telefonica also partnered in 2015 with MTN, one of Africa’s biggest mobile operator, to bring similar services to the continent’s emerging markets.

Meanwhile, the Power and Connectivity Working group under the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which was started by a group of global mobile leaders, is enabling network operators to enable connectivity in areas without electricity by reducing costs, agreeing on interoperability standards, and providing a platform for connectivity and electricity providers to collaborate to pilot and scale innovative technology and business models.

But the internet’s power to connect people, support the sharing of knowledge and unlock economic opportunities will not be fully realized unless all the barriers to connectivity are addressed.This will require a coordinated effort from many stakeholders, with governments, operators, technology companies and content providers taking a leading role, supported by academia, media, international organizations and NGOs. But it all starts with energy, and the accelerated adoption and integration of distributed renewable energy solutions and business models that have the power to unlock the potential of universal connectivity.

Other reading: Connecting the sustainable development goals by their energy inter-linkages