Telenor Satellite spoke with Satellite Evolution Global about the important role of connectivity in fostering growth and development in remote communities. From remote education, Aid and medical care, to empowering individuals and supporting small and large enterprise, accessibility to connectivity is one of the key enablers of bridging the digital divide.
In this era of unprecedented technological advancements, the digital divide between those who have access to this bright new world and those for whom it is still lacking, is impeding overall global progress. The digital divide can be seen between citizens within nations, largely due to economic differences, but it is far more marked between different nation states. In this case the issue is more multi-faceted, encompassing aspects such as accessibility and usability of connectivity, as well as economics – the three key challenges facing those communities that are behind the technology curve.
Connectivity accessibility can best be explained by how readily available technological infrastructure and resources are for those who wish to be digitally connected, whether through devices, internet or other essential tools.
Usability refers to the skills and knowledge required to use digital technologies effectively. Even where access is available, there can still be a lack of general digital literacy and experience which can hamper individuals and businesses in their attempts to maximise their use of these resources.
Economics relates to the financial resources needed to access and utilise digital technologies and encompasses such things as the cost of devices themselves, as well as internet subscriptions and other associated expenses.
Focus on accessibility
While these issues are all interrelated, accessibility is the area where Telenor Satellite is able to make a greater impact and is where we have the expertise to help bridge the divide and empower societies in remote locations. Connectivity accessibility serves as the foundation for resolving digital inequality as, without adequate connectivity accessibility, the potential for growth and development will remain out of reach for many individuals and communities.
For those communities that lack accessibility, some of their greatest challenges revolve around the absence of online services, whether for education, healthcare services or economic opportunities. This in turn perpetuates the isolation of these communities and limits individual’s potential for interaction with the global community.
There are many countries around the world, for example within parts of Africa, South America and Asia, where they simply do not have the infrastructure needed for fixed communications. Although fibre may have reached the coastal regions of these countries, inland they still rely on satellite to enable the development of a network. By making use of mobile backhaul, the service operators are able to build a network connecting remote base stations via satellite connection. In effect, satellite here is the enabler for other technologies, particularly via mobile phone networks which provide internet access to users who don’t have the means to pay for broadband connections.
The introduction of 5G will also increase the requirement for high-speed broadband so a multitude of mobile base stations will be essential if these communities are to attempt to gain a level footing with the rest of the world.
Improving communications in remote regions
Thankfully, there are ways in which we can improve accessibility in remote regions, but it does require a concerted effort on the part of governments, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the global community, not to mention satellite services providers such as Telenor Satellite. In these situations we are working towards using the mobile networks to expand broadband infrastructure and internet connectivity, while local authorities are focused on reducing costs as far as possible and making sure that devices are affordable to the population.
The situation has improved enormously with the advances in mobile phone technology over the past years and it is now possible to buy or lease a smart phone at an affordable and easily accessible cost giving internet access over the mobile network to other data connections. This is starting to bring the internet to less affluent communities where citizens can’t afford to pay for dedicated broadband access. Telenor Group is very active in these communities, bringing satellite connectivity to hundreds of millions of consumers who would otherwise be cut off from the digital shift the world is experiencing.
There have been a number of developments in technology that support accessibility, satellites have a greater reach, mobile devices have been developed to increase the options available while other progress has brought enhancements such as screen readers and voice recognition software to benefit those individuals with disabilities who have previously been disenfranchised.
At an individual level, it is easy to understand how accessibility can improve lives, but it is at the community level where the greatest Impact can be seen. Access to online educational resources and remote learning platforms plays a vital role in breaking down the educational and skills gaps that can sometimes be found in remote regions increasing opportunities for the population. Telenor Satellite has provided satellite links to remote universities giving students access to research papers, and also enabling them to make their own research available. What’s more, video conferencing with peers in other countries allows them to pool knowledge and resources and play an active role in the global academic community.
Another notable benefit is the increased access to expert medical care via telemedicine so that populations are able to receive medical consultations and advice without the need to travel great distances.
New LEO systems are also bringing easily accessible connectivity to these remote areas. However, it is still at a higher cost for the individual user than accessing internet via mobile networks – the cost is carried by the broadband subscriber rather than shared between all users of the mobile network. For this reason, it is likely that communities will continue to rely on mobile phone connectivity for some time to come.
Enterprise is an additional area where connectivity accessibility can have an enormous impact, particularly with the business world’s adoption of the virtual workplace which came about as a direct result of the COVID pandemic. Enterprises whose services can be easily transmitted via the internet can now operate from anywhere in the world provided there is reliable connectivity opening up the possibility of e-commerce to many otherwise isolated communities.
Supporting remote enterprises and those that work for them is the financial sector and, in fact, Telenor Group operates a bank specifically developed for remote communities enabling them to manage their money better, pay electronically, receive their salary directly into their account and even opening up the opportunity to take out personal or business loans. With the use of the app, these communities are able to handle their banking online via their mobile phones even where broadband is unobtainable or too costly.
Enterprise and individuals can both also benefit from the digital literacy that can develop within society once the accessibility issue has been overcome. Just a few individuals with a desire to understand and navigate the digital landscape can become catalysts for knowledge throughout the community, making businesses more efficient and paving the way for remote working in an array of industry sectors.
NGOs and Aid organisations are frequently called upon to provide relief in remote areas where there is no terrestrial network and so rely on satellite communications to support their efforts. However, there are times when a crisis arises in a relatively well-developed community such as the recent Turkish/Syrian earthquake, in these cases there is a need to switch on satellite connectivity at short notice.
Fortunately, the agencies providing these aid services are well geared up to arrive on the ground with a communications kit ready to go. They can set up a remote base station at a moment’s notice, often travelling with a complete communications system onboard including a generator which is ready to link up with the satellite.
Why sorting accessibility is the key
Access to digital platforms, such as Facebook to Instagram, and WhatsApp, enables members of the community to participate more fully in the global economy, and with that comes the potential for commercial growth and the subsequent influx of money into the area. It isn’t only the higher-tech enterprises which reap the rewards, increased wealth in a region also benefits even the more traditional rural businesses.
And the benefits continue as the increase in economic growth facilitates the investment in additional digital infrastructure which opens the door to new technologies providing even more opportunities for the population.
Finally, as more technology is acquired, individuals are personally empowered with the opportunity to hone their skills, not only digital competencies but also their practical skills through the use of self-education clips on platforms such as YouTube and academic qualifications through online college and university courses. By taking advantage of these opportunities, citizens enhance their employability, allowing them to make a greater financial contribution to society.
In an increasingly interconnected world, the importance of addressing the digital divide cannot be overstated. Among the three pillars of the divide – connectivity accessibility, usability and economics – accessibility is the cornerstone for progress. By ensuring that all individuals and communities, no matter their location, have equal opportunities to access and benefit from digital technologies, we can create a more inclusive and empowered global society.
Image: Julian Crudge, Managing Director Telenor Satellite UK / Sales Director, Data Services. Photo by Kilian Munch.