The rise of Internet connectivity is transforming lives across the globe, with sweeping benefits for growth, jobs and prosperity more widespread by the day. Over three billion people are now connected to the Internet, with numbers predicted to rise to over six billion by 2020, according to a recent State of Broadband report. This increase in Internet connectivity could add trillions of dollars to the global GDP, and open socio-economic doors around the world. Digital connectivity provides a slew of benefits, and a unique platform for innovation, creativity and problem solving. In the past 15 years, the Internet has transformed everything from the way we do business and learn to the way we provide and access healthcare.
Access to Internet is access to knowledge. Increased Internet connectivity in the developing world would increase health literacy significantly and, according to a 2014 Deloitte study, save up to two and a half million lives by increasing knowledge about basic health and sanitation. The study even determined that the life expectancy of over two million HIV/AIDS patients could be significantly increased because of better adherence to treatment via Internet databases and monitoring. While the benefits are due to increase exponentially in coming years, web-based health developments have already begun to save lives.
For much of the world, access to qualified physicians and health experts can be a challenge, particularly in rural and remote areas. Computerized networks and Internet connections enable long-distance training, accurate databases, up-to-date research information, remote diagnosing, and even real-time consultation. In Kenya, a country with just one physician for every 5,000 people (compared to a one to 500 ratio in the United Kingdom), e-health innovations like the Mobile Colposcope help remove barriers to accessing health services.
MobileODT’s Mobile Colposcope serves as a cervical cancer screening tool by taking detailed images of a woman’s cervix using a device attached to a smart phone. It takes a nurse only a few minutes at a local (or even mobile) clinic to capture and store the image, then – through a 3G or wireless connection – share it with other medical professionals from around the world for a second opinion and quick diagnosis. Without this tool, women would have to wait weeks for their samples to be shipped to distant hospitals for analysis, and often fail to return to the hospital to receive their results, thus potentially missing out on lifesaving treatment.
Like the health sector, the education sector has also embraced the digital era, and e-learning innovations are gaining popularity around the world. The Internet now provides access to schools, libraries, and databases from across the globe, exposing students far and wide to books, media and resources unimaginable just a few years ago.
The e-learning company Onebillion has harnessed the power of web-based technology to teach mathematics and reading on tablet computers in rural Malawi, a country with an average student to teacher ratio of 100 to one. The tablets, solar paneled and connected to the Internet via either 3G or wireless routers, send child-specific data back to the company’s headquarters where app developers review children’s progress and develop curricula accordingly. The company also installs solar-powered projectors into classrooms so that students can watch films, documentaries and video clips streamed from the Internet onto the teacher’s connected iPad. Access to the Internet empowers students to learn for themselves, and e-learning companies are producing a new generation of creative, tech-savvy, independent learners who will be equipped to launch their own set of innovative web-based ventures in the future.
Other e-learning opportunities, like online university degrees or training courses, have become increasingly popular now, with over seven million students taking online courses in just the United States alone, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. Companies like edX, a non-profit “massive open online course provider,” hosts over 700 online university-level courses to a worldwide student body using open-source software. The organization even provides many courses free of charge from prestigious schools like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some universities are even going exclusively online, with the largest university in Africa, the University of South Africa, being a dedicated open distance education institution.
The possibilities of e-learning are nearly infinite, with interactive online workshops and international multi-party Skype conferences becoming ever the norm. Web-based companies have huge potential, and are accounting for more and more of the global GDP.
According to a recent Deloitte study, extending Internet access in Africa, Latin America, India and South East Asia to levels of developed countries could generate $2.2 trillion in additional GDP growth, provide more than 140 million new jobs, and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. Everyday the Internet hosts a vast array of economic activity, from millions of paid downloads to billions of commercial sales and purchases. If measured as a sector, Internet-related consumption and expenditure now accounts for more of the global GDP than agriculture or energy.
The Internet reduces transaction costs and brings financial services to people living far from formal markets, banks and ATMs. India currently has the fastest growing e-commerce market, and hosts the third largest Internet user base in the world. E-commerce in India – and around the globe – promises convenience, fast financial development, efficiency, and effectiveness.
The Internet allows customers to more easily gather information about competitor’s prices and products, making the market increasingly competitive. Online transactions bypass sticky fingers, while also providing a fast and effective way of reaching global markets, with companies like Amazon India helping over 6,000 Indian businesses securely sell product abroad.
The convenience and cost-effectiveness of buying and selling online has led to a proliferation of companies that solely conduct business online. Etsy, for example, is a peer-to-peer e-commerce website that acts as an online craft fair, with each seller having a personalized website “storefront” to list their goods. Companies like Etsy have a global marketplace, and sell and ship to and from all over the world.
While the advantages of Internet access are marked and varied, these benefits still elude large portions of the developing world. The global digital divide is enormous: most developed countries boast connectivity levels of 80 percent or higher (South Korea has the highest broadband penetration rate, with 98.5 percent of its homes connected) but connectivity in the developing world is often less than 20 percent (the Internet is available to less than two percent of the populations in Guinea, Somalia and Burundi). Closing the global Internet divide and expanding e-commerce, e-learning and e-health innovations in the developing world will have massive impacts on global health, economy and prosperity. With greater access, even more transformations – in all corners of the globe – are in store.
About the author: Fumbi Chima is the Chief Information Officer of Burbery and an Advisory Board Member of Diplomatic Courier.