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How coronavirus has exposed Middle East’s gaping digital divide

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted businesses and the working habits and lives of billions around the world. But it has also shone a spotlight on some of the wider IT challenges already being faced by many governments, businesses and communities.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has acknowledged these issues, noting “the COVID-19 crisis has … highlighted its own digital divide, where many families, workers, businesses and populations are not able to access or afford the benefits of digital technology”.

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In the Middle East and North Africa, these digital discrepancies are especially pronounced given the cultural and financial diversity of the region. Although these issues pre-date the pandemic, it has nonetheless reinforced the need for them to be tackled.

Here are three of the biggest digital-divide issues the region faces:

1.   Access and affordability

“In the Middle East and North Africa, the proportion of the population not covered by a mobile broadband network fell by more than half between 2014 and 2018 and now stands at 11%,” the GSMA states

Yet, as the GSMA observes, “almost half the population are not connected to the mobile internet even though they are covered by a 3G or 4G network”.

One long-standing reason for this situation is the relatively high cost of handsets and data packages. 

As a result, GSMA data shows that in 2018 smartphone penetration across the typically more affluent Gulf nations stood at 75%, compared with 52% in North Africa and 39% in other Arab states such as Sudan. At a time of growing unemployment and reduced government subsidies, the cost of digital services may become harder still for many households to afford.

Alongside this problem, a further factor behind these, and other, take-up statistics is the pronounced gender gap present across much of the region when it comes to technology access. 

And, of course, as Internews’ Saoussen Ben Cheikh reminds us, moving your life or business online is not an option in conflict-stricken countries. In places such as “Libya, Syria and Yemen, strained by conflict and economic chaos, users face low-speed internet and prohibitive costs”.

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The gap between those who have internet access and those without it is stuck at about 50%.


Image: GSMA

2. Availability of online services

For those able to work from home, comes another potential issue: many popular video-calling and VoIP services have historically been blocked by state regulators.

These restrictions have been lifted during the pandemic, allowing people to legally use some services like Zoom and Skype, but it’s unclear whether these changes will be permanent. 

Effective use of services can also be stymied by connection speeds. The region is home to some of the slowest, as well as to some of the fastest, connections in the world. 

SEE: Middle East: Web-chat services unblocked but big tech projects take a hit in COVID crisis

Moreover, “many countries saw meaningful drops in average download speeds for mobile and fixed internet connections between February and March 2020”, Simon Kemp, chief analyst at DataReportal, writes. Average download speeds for mobile internet dropped by 13% in Israel, 12% in Morocco, and 9.7% in Turkey, between February and March 2020. 

At the same time, other persistent challenges also exist, including the lack of content and services available in the Arabic language, the large number of smaller businesses without a digital presence and the slow, although accelerating, growth curve for e-commerce

Addressing these issues may further help to reduce digital divides, by creating more reasons for widespread digital adoption and engagement.

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The Middle East and North Africa region has some of the slowest, as well as some of the fastest, connections in the world.   


Image: Ookla

3. Digital skills and literacy 

Historically, efforts to engender digital skills have focused on meeting existing and predicted IT skill gaps. This remains a priority for countries across the region as they continue to pivot towards becoming knowledge-based economies. 

That said, digital skill requirements must go beyond conventional technology education and training. 

A further important consideration, even in countries with high levels of tech take-up, is the breadth and depth of digital usage. 

The coronavirus may have helped to remedy elements of this problem, by creating opportunities for new digital habits, such as online shopping and learning. But, it has also amplified other digital literacy issues. 

Dubbed an ‘infodemic’, by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), there’s a further concern that “fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous”.

Like other regions, the Middle East and North Africa has been increasingly susceptible to digital disinformation, although this trend is not unique to the current climate. Disinformation can be especially problematic in closed networks – like WhatsApp groups – which many netizens have migrated to, due to concerns about online privacy and surveillance.

To counteract the spread of falsehoods, consumers need to become more information literate, and we need to see more fact-checking efforts – especially during a public-health crisis – like the one launched last year by AFP, in Arabic

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Just over two-thirds of the Middle East population have internet access. 


Image: Iberdrola/Internet World Stats

Bridging the divide

The region’s digital divide is readily apparent. Remedying this social injustice is important if the socio-economic benefits afforded by digital technology are to be unlocked across the region. 

“Now, more than ever, governments, industry, international organizations, NGOs, academia and other stakeholders must work together to find mutually beneficial solutions,” the ITU suggests

There is precedent for this type of collaboration and innovation. Facebook and Twitter have sought to address affordability issues through the launch of ‘lite’ versions of their services.

Telcos have explored infrastructure-sharing to improve access, while governments and Silicon Valley giants have supported initiatives focused on skills training and innovation.

To this list, we should add further investment in local tech education and Arabic digital content, cultural shifts towards a greater acceptance of working from home, and the creation of new products and services – such as mobile wallets – which meet real consumer needs. 

Meanwhile, making some government services online only, coupled with efforts like the Dubai Paperless Strategy, and Egypt’s rollout of digital IDs as a means to access services, will further incentivize behavioral change and the necessary adoption of new digital habits. 

Closing the digital divide is in the interests of governments, telecom providers and other businesses, all of which stand to benefit from a wider user base.

At the same time, consumers also need to reap the benefits too, with digital improving and enhancing their lives, not adding another layer of complication and cost to it.

Whether COVID-19 provides the impetus for these changes remains to be seen, but the pandemic has demonstrated the need to address these issues sooner rather than later.


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