Digital Inclusion: 11 steps to universal technological integration

Digital inclusion seeks to eliminate social inequalities by creating conditions so that everyone has the same opportunities online and no one is left behind. Learn about 11 essential steps toward universal technological integration.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies, 5.3 billion people (66% of the world's population) are online (meaning: have used the Internet in the last three months), and 2.7 billion are still offline. Many of these people live in rural and remote areas, in less developed countries, in landlocked countries, and in small island developing states.

Globally, more than 1 billion people have started using the Internet in the last five years. The COVID-19 pandemic has largely contributed to the increase in usage and it is estimated that by 2020, 466 million people will have started using the Internet for the first time.  

The overall average price of mobile broadband services has decreased from 1.9% to 1.5% of average gross national income per capita. The affordability of this service has become a benchmark for global Internet usage, as it offers relatively cheap access compared to fixed Internet service.

What is digital inclusion?

According to the United Nations digital inclusion is about ensuring equal, meaningful, and secure access to digital technologies and about ensuring opportunities in the digital space for everyone, everywhere, without leaving vulnerable or historically marginalized groups behind.

Adequate infrastructure, services and skills in information and communication technologies (ICT) enable individuals and businesses to participate in the digital economy, in addition to contributing to economic development and increasing the competitiveness of countries.

 Among other advantages associated with digital inclusion are the following:

  • Connected, digitally skilled people and communities are able to access information, online health services, and life-saving disaster warnings;
  • Allows payment for goods and services online;
  • Makes it possible to keep in touch with family and friends;
  • Increases productivity and access to better jobs and higher salaries.

The digital divide

With so many people working and studying from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, digital inclusion for all has become one of the most pressing issues of today. While the pandemic has boosted Internet access generally, encouraging more people to connect for work or play, in some countries it has accentuated existing digital divides related to age, disability, gender, geography, and socioeconomic status. 

With many services migrating to the online channel, there is a real and looming danger that those without broadband Internet access will fall further and further behind.

While virtually all urban areas in the world are covered by a mobile broadband network, worrying gaps in Internet connectivity and access persist in rural areas. Globally, by 2020, 76% of households in urban areas had Internet access at home - almost double that of rural areas (39%).

Connectivity gaps in rural areas are of particular concern in less developed countries, where 15% of the rural population lives in areas without any mobile coverage, and 10% of the rural population has coverage only from a 2G network.

Assessing the investment requirements for achieving affordable universal connectivity is important for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations.

11 steps to universal technological integration

There are several steps needed towards universal digital integration, in which the United Nations is involved. The following stand out:

1. Support for business connectivity services through partnerships with international and local providers;

2. Engagement of governments and regulators to facilitate legal access to SIM cards and the provision of digital financial services, ensuring the inclusion of refugees in national digital strategies and frameworks;

3. Removing barriers to digital inclusion for people with disabilities;

4. Addressing the gender digital divide through targeted interventions to support the digital inclusion of women and girls;

5. Promoting the digital inclusion of older people by addressing barriers and preventing idadism in the digital world;

6. Promote digital literacy and digital skills among the most vulnerable populations, improving their online safety;

7. Combat misinformation and fake news online, which hinder access to credible information;

8. Identify, adopt and adapt digital tools that provide and strengthen online feedback and complaint mechanisms;

9. Support communities' secure access to the digital economy and provide opportunities for digitally enabled, exploitation-free livelihoods and decent work;

10. Provide access to digital technology for entertainment and social purposes to support community resilience and well-being;

11. Create opportunities for digital to offer solutions to environmental crises and make its impact greener.

Digital inclusion aims to eliminate existing structural social inequalities and improve the well-being of all, and seeks to be equitable so that everyone has the same opportunities online and struggling communities are not left behind.