Digital connectivity – including wireless, wired, and satellite technologies – is the utility of the 21st century. It drives all aspects of smart and future cities, and key components of economies and societies. Digital connectivity is also a crucial tool in the context of COVID-19 response and recovery – including enabling remote working and learning, e-commerce, and critical communications.
Across the Asia Pacific region, connectivity is embedded in every aspect of our lives. The region will have a total of 3 billion mobile subscribers by 2025, whilst half of all new mobile subscribers around the world will come from the region. This growth could be transformative for all the sectors and industries that rely on connectivity.
Challenges in rolling out digital infrastructure
However, despite the potential that connectivity can enable, there are real challenges in rolling out digital infrastructure.
First, successful implementation of any kind of infrastructure requires a comprehensive and strategic approach, and even more so for digital infrastructure. Unlike other more traditional infrastructure sectors, digital infrastructure requires coordination across many moving parts, from mobile spectrum allocations – the radio frequencies that enable mobile connectivity – to balancing the rights of landowners; policy and legislation to ensure that no one (and nowhere) is left unconnected, and ensuring equitable access to – and ownership of – devices.
Second, it is insufficient to just provide access; we need ‘meaningful connectivity’, which is defined by the Alliance for Affordable Internet as quality internet access. We need to ensure individuals and businesses can prosper in our growing digital economies and societies – including enabling bandwidth-heavy requirements such as remote working and distance learning. We also need to get the basics right. 5G attracts many headlines, but by 2025, 56% of all mobile subscribers around the world – and 65% of all subscribers in the Asia Pacific region – will still be using a 4G connection. A further 12% of users in Asia Pacific will still be relying on 2G or 3G technologies.
Third, affordability is also an important consideration. This includes both the affordability of data connections, as well as the affordability of devices. The region is making strong progress here, including through innovative brands and products. More significant, though, is the digital infrastructure financing gap. This is the difference between the funding required to achieve the needs of the digital economy (including digital connectivity and other foundations), and the actual investments being made. In the region, this gap is increasing, and could reach half-a-trillion dollars by 2040. Tackling this will require significant effort from governments across the region in driving private sector investments.
These challenges could have real impact on economic growth, including constraining innovation. For example, it may reduce the opportunities to build technology-focused and export-led industries around emerging technologies, smart cities, and other developments. It could also limit the ability of governments to meet the needs of citizens, by hampering public sector digitalisation and reducing the extent of digital public service delivery.
Despite these challenges, the impressive and important progress being made in deploying digital connectivity across the Asia Pacific region offers some important guidance on ways forward. This includes the catalytic role of mobile connectivity as a foundation to the Bangladesh A2i programme (an approach also being deployed in Thailand), and the progress in Vietnam in significantly increasing fixed-line broadband to drive the digital economy. We have also seen an increase in the quality-of-experience of 3G and 4G connectivity in many countries. Further afield, South Korea is focusing on a ‘Digital New Deal’, including exploring the role of 5G.
Partnership has been essential in many of these successes. This includes partnerships between the public and private sectors, particularly local authorities and cities and digital connectivity providers. More widely, and reflecting the international dimension of connectivity, international partnerships are proving – and will continue to be – especially important.
In a recent webinar organised by Infrastructure Asia and the ASEAN Secretariat, it was mentioned that ASEAN is in a good position to leverage digital connectivity for economic and social development. Around 40% of ASEAN’s population are under 30 years old, providing a pool of digitally-savvy technology users. Whilst internet penetration increased tremendously from about 12% in 2007 to 44% in 2017, there remains over 350 million of the 650 million ASEAN population that could benefit from further digital connectivity. The increasing use of digital connectivity infrastructure in ASEAN is thus expected to give rise to new products, services and applications that can potentially transform how people live and work. Successful implementation of the digital agenda is estimated to add USD1 trillion to ASEAN’s GDP over ten years.
However, what and where to focus next, as well as how to enable more private sector involvement, are key issues that will require different answers for different countries and even different regions within the same country. Enabling good-fitting solutions is key. This is where multilaterals, such as UNDP with their global experience, could help governments and the private sector find the right models and solutions to help maximise the benefits to the economy and population. Infrastructure Asia is also applying and sharing best practice, from Singapore and elsewhere, for countries around the region.
Digital connectivity is an essential component in advancing our economies and societies, particularly in the context of COVID-19 recovery. It is also an important foundation in achieving each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These global objectives, agreed by countries in 2015, aim to shape a better world for everyone by 2030.
Any difficulties that constrain, hinder, or outright block the delivery of digital connectivity could have real, negative, and serious effects on lives and livelihoods. We need comprehensive, high-quality, affordable, and accessible digital connectivity in order to reduce poverty, improve equality, deliver quality education, and to build sustainable cities and communities. It is an essential catalyst for growth, inclusion, and prosperity – in the region, and beyond.
Calum is an Advisor at the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. He has led innovation, digitalisation, and smart cities programmes across the UK, Sub-Saharan Africa, and APAC.
Seth is the Executive Director of Infrastructure Asia, which is a project facilitation office under the Singapore government. Set up by Enterprise Singapore and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the office aims to harness the network and collective capabilities of public sector agencies and private sector firms, and partner stakeholders across the region to meet Asia’s infrastructure needs.