For many of us, the Internet has evolved into an indispensable need, with connectivity becoming ever-more crucial to provide a wide range of digital services. This took on a new meaning with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the emergence of COVID-19 more than a year and a half ago, international bandwidth usage has continued to grow. Yet still, almost half of the world’s population remains unconnected.
The connectivity challenge remains especially severe for remote or isolated communities, far from the network infrastructure that has spread across all major continents.
According to estimates by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), only 52 per cent of people in the world’s small island developing states (SIDS) use the Internet.
Closing the gap for these remote communities deserves special attention.
Percentage of individuals using the Internet, 2019*
*ITU estimate. Note: Youth means 15 to 24-year-old individuals using the Internet as a percentage of the total population aged 15 to 24 years.
There is no question that connectivity and information and communication technologies (ICTs) hold a great promise for all of us, and we need to make sure that the disadvantaged communities have equal access to them.
With the development of digital infrastructure, digital services, and digital capacities, SIDS can unlock their potential and mark their place in today’s world.
SIDS-specific challenges and barriers
High electricity costs and lack of affordable connectivity are the primary obstacles that inhibit small island communities from leveraging digital solutions to obtain better access to essential services.
The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has set a target of 2 per cent of gross national income by 2025 as a key benchmark for affordability.
However, many Pacific Island countries have yet to achieve this.
Another challenge for SIDS is the lack of digital skills and literacy. In our increasingly connected world, insufficient skills have become a barrier to meaningful participation in society.
Additionally, those digital services that are available may be open to very restricted usage and often do not accommodate local needs. Not only must technologies and applications be adapted, but content needs to be localized for more relevant engagement with and assistance to SIDS communities.
Many other SIDS-specific challenges persist, including geographic isolation, lack of human resources, low availability and quality of infrastructure, and vulnerability to external shocks. We need to systematically address those challenges, tackle the associated barriers and help transform small island communities digitally.
Holistic, whole-of-government solutions
For countries to realize digital transformation, we need to move away from traditional, siloed approaches between different government agencies towards a more holistic approach customized to the needs of island communities.
A whole-of-government approach enables governments to make progress in cross-cutting areas of digital transformation, such as digital infrastructure, cybersecurity and cyber safety, capacity building, digital services, emergency telecommunication, and digital inclusion, amongst others.
Transforming communities socially and economically
ITU launched its Smart Islands programme to deliver connectivity and scalable and sustainable services to disadvantaged island communities.
With the whole-of-government approach in mind, the Smart Islands programme aims to transform rural and coastal communities and improve their well-being and livelihood by connecting them to a range of digitally enabled services from e-health to e-agriculture.
Integrated approach to smart islands services. Source: ITU
Built on the ITU-led Smart Village initiative, first piloted in Niger and now being further developed in Egypt and Pakistan, the programme adopts an innovative approach to deliver connectivity and scalable and sustainable services to island communities, especially vulnerable populations.
I am excited to announce that 11 Pacific countries – Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Palau – have expressed interest in this programme.
ITU is advancing this programme to unite our efforts on connecting the unconnected along with the support of UN Resident Coordinators, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS), UN sister agencies and other partners.
The Smart Islands programme is designed to manifest digital transformation at the community level to ensure that the global rise of tech leaves no one behind.
The transformation of small islands into smart islands drives positive change and greatly improves the quality of life of local island communities.
Based on Doreen Bogdan-Martin’s speech on the ‘Smart Islands’ Project Proposal.
Learn more about ITU’s Smart Islands Initiative.
Image credit: wirestock via freepik