Governments must tackle pandemic digital divide says OECD

The COVID-19 crisis is “accentuating” the need to bridge digital divides, says the OECD, and has called on governments to quickly open up more wireless spectrum and broadband connectivity to mitigate global difficulties.

In a report, the OECD says improved internet connectivity and skills have helped “many countries” to cope with the health and economic crisis from COVID-19.

Yet, it says, the pandemic has “raised the bar” for digital transition and “underscores” the need to close digital divides that “risk” leaving some people and firms worse off than others in a post-COVID world.

With some internet providers reporting increases in traffic of 60 per cent since the start of the pandemic - as people adapt to “living and working online” - the OECD’s latest Digital Economy Outlook reveals the gaps between and within countries when it comes to access to fast and reliable internet.

For example, the share of faster fibre in fixed broadband subscriptions in OECD countries ranges from 82 per cent in Korea and 79 per cent in Japan to below 5 per cent in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Israel and the UK, with high-speed connections “often sparse” in rural areas.

OECD countries count roughly twice the level of high-speed mobile internet subscriptions per inhabitants and over three times the level of fixed broadband subscriptions as non-OECD countries.

Fixed broadband subscriptions number 32 per 100 inhabitants in OECD countries compared to just nine per 100 in non-OECD countries. Fibre connections in OECD countries accounted for 27 per cent of subscriptions.

The share of adults using the internet ranges from over 95 per cent in some OECD countries to less than 70 per cent in others.

As of June 2020, 5G mobile commercial services were available in 22 OECD countries.

“Digital technologies have helped our economies and societies to avoid a complete standstill during the COVID-19 crisis, and have enabled us to learn more about the virus, accelerate the search for a vaccine and track the development of the pandemic,” said OECD deputy secretary-general Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen.

“But the crisis has also accentuated our dependence on digital technologies and exposed the reality of the digital divides between and within countries. We are at a turning point in digital transformation, and the shape of our economies and societies post-COVID will depend on how well we can progress and narrow these divides.”

The OECD says governments can strengthen broadband deployment by promoting private investment and competition, encouraging infrastructure sharing and setting minimum levels of coverage for rural areas in spectrum auctions.

To meet the current surge in demand for network connectivity, the report recommends measures like “temporarily releasing” additional spectrum or approving commercial transactions that put unused spectrum into service, upgrading interconnection capacity between networks and finding ways to “encourage” broadband providers to deploy more fibre “deeper into networks”.

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