Toby Parkin is an entrepreneur in St Agnes, a coastal village in Cornwall. His company, Headforwards, develops software for businesses. Cornwall’s rural location makes for great holidays and surfing in the sea (tried it, loved it … twice) but it was a less invigorating experience surfing the Internet. The reason – its an awkward business case for anyone investing in broadband infrastructure, particularly when they expect to make a return. So in 2010, the European Union, Cornwall Council and BT clubbed together to bring the digital economy to what at the time was a digitally disadvantaged region of the UK. The programme is called Superfast Cornwall.
Once connected over a very high-speed fibre connection, Toby and his team connected with businesses around the world, including NTT, Japan’s largest telecoms company. This connection led to an important contract to develop specialist software to support NTT’s business. For me, this story illustrates the power of the digital economy to transform lives and businesses.
650 million people worldwide, more than twice the population of the United States, will get a broadband connection and become new members of the digital economy this year. Two thirds of these will be on a mobile network connection. This is impressive growth but, even if it can be sustained, it will still take a decade or more – given population growth – for everyone to get access to the Internet of Everything, something many of us take for granted.
87% of the world’s population owned a mobile phone at the end of 2011. That’s four times more than owned a personal computer. It’s also more people than have flushing toilets or own a toothbrush. But being able to make phone calls is not as much fun or as valuable as being able to freely access the Internet. The encouraging news is that 85% of the world’s population will have access to 3G or 4G mobile services by 2016.
But two thirds of the world’s population (that’s 4.5 billion people) remain digitally excluded today. There are many reasons for this. For some, it’s poverty: 40% of the world’s population live on less than $2 per day, putting a broadband connection beyond reach. A broadband subscription in an emerging country can be 25 times that in developed markets (based on relative gross national income). A lack of education, age and social background are also factors. It’s a tragedy that access to the digital economy could provide millions of people with a shot at escaping poverty, but poverty is getting in the way.
It’s easy to define the digital divide as an emerging world problem. While there is certainly an emerging nation challenge, regions of the developed world as Cornwall was before intervention, face digital challenges too.
Worth thinking about the next time you get upset because your connection is running ‘a bit slow’.