Digital Literacy Program Participants in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Microsoft)

Whether it’s rural Kansas or rural Uganda, there are many commonalities in the digital divide in both rural areas in the U.S. and internationally, said the head of a Microsoft program aiming to serve rural folks across the globe.  

Vickie Robinson, general manager of the Airband Initiative, said one thing that is common among all rural locales is that it’s difficult to cover or access areas where it’s harder for providers to be able to make a business case to bring connectivity.

“You don’t have the population to justify the cost and get a return on profit,” she told the Daily Yonder. 

Also, universally, people can see that the digital divide disproportionately impacts people who are housing or income insecure. 

“We see it impact people who may have low literacy rates, but also women and girls,” she said. “So that’s some commonalities that we see across the space, again whether you’re in the rural U.S. or in other countries.”

She added that with the pandemic, governments are getting a lot more creative and thoughtful about how to approach the problem.

“To actually make sure that everyone can have access through things like focusing on public private partnerships; to develop this approach where you’re bringing different parties together to be able to extend that connectivity to hard to serve areas,” she said. 

That shows the importance of working with local partners who understand communities that they are working in and are trusted sources. 

Late last year, Microsoft announced during the U.S. African Leaders Summit a commitment to work with Internet service providers, middle mile providers … and others to build upon their existing work to extend high speed internet access to 250 million people around the world, including 100 million people within the continent of Africa alone. 

Across the world, 2.7 billion people are offline, Robinson said, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Globally, 69% of men are online, compared to only 63% of women.

“But when you think about areas like least developed countries and the Global South, those numbers and percentages [gaps] are even wider,’ she said, adding that “One thing that we’ve been able to learn during our time doing this work is that if we can find effective ways to get backbone internet access, what’s referred to as middle mile infrastructure, in place that enables partners. If we can do it and partner with ways that are cost effective, then partners are able to tap into those partnerships in hyperlocal ways to provide affordable last mile connectivity.”

Ensuring gender equity is also important to eliminating the digital divide, she said. 

“What we describe as meaningful connectivity, that is sort of the ability and the wherewithal to get access,” she said. “It’s affordable, but also ensures that people have access to the devices and skilling that are necessary. You need a tool, a mechanism to get online, and then you need to have the skills that are necessary to be able to operate online safely and productively.”

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