The social and economic benefits that come with access to broadband improve lives and create economic opportunity. The “connected” have an opportunity to bring this access to all, and assistance is key.

The digital divide contributes to an economic divide. Countries with significant penetration are thriving, and despite efforts to improve Internet access in many developing countries, many nations and countless numbers of people are being left behind. The United Nations Broadband Commission has established goals for countries to close these gaps, and there has been progress: for example, over 134 countries now have national broadband plans. But many low-income and remote populations remain unserved; the International Telecommunications Union’s “ICT Facts and Figures” reports that over 4 billion citizens lack Internet connections.

This leaves “the connected” with a formidable opportunity—and in many places, this opportunity is being seized. Market mechanisms have connected the first 2 billion users worldwide, and with new business models and public-private partnerships, these same approaches are on the way to enabling the third billion. The pre-paid subscription model, along with facilities competition, has made cellphones nearly ubiquitous. Applying the pre-paid model to broadband via the R3B program—a partnership among government, service providers, equipment manufacturers, and content providers offering pre-paid broadband, affordable PCs, and desired content—has quickly added millions more online.

Universal Service Funds close the gap

Connecting the remaining billions of people with broadband requires public assistance because market forces are not sufficient to act in the near term. Universal Service Funds (USFs) are one valuable tool to close these service gaps, and best practices from around the world can model results for governments considering this approach. In Malaysia, for example, the USF provided netbooks and subscriptions to more than 1 million low-income students, which more than doubled household Internet penetration in three years. Turkey is another success story; the country is using USFs and other funds to transform the education system, providing electronic whiteboards, laptops, and tablets, along with a 21st century curricula and the appropriate teacher training. These programs greatly help to increase broadband use.

The reality, however, remains: several billion people who are in the lower tier of the pyramid live in remote locations and have extremely low incomes, and therefore shared access can be one of the most effective solutions for the short term. Shared access through telecenters, libraries, and schools provides a number of benefits, such as low cost access to devices that connect to the Internet, digital skills training, and access to e-government services.

USFs have established hundreds if not thousands of telecenters in remote areas. Success stories in Colombia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Ghana prove that they are providing a means for millions of underserved villagers to gain access to essential skills and services. In India and Bangladesh there are also thousands of these shared access centers. Some are managed by villagers, who may act as agents of the banks (assisting with bill paying and microloan financing), or agents of the government (providing online registrations to access government services) while also providing PC skills training and access to email.

Wanted: Workshops

Despite the benefits of USFs, much of the funds around the world remain underutilized. A recent ITU study shows that of 69 funds reviewed, a majority had little to no activity, and at the time less than half permitted deployments for broadband. Out of $23.2 billion available for Universal Service Funds in 2010–2011, $11.8 billion remained unused. One factor contributing to low usage of available monies is inability to manage the fund.

To help address the capacity issues, Intel is leading a series of regional broadband and Universal Service Fund workshops where government and industry leaders gather to share what works and what doesn’t to enable more people to get online. The money is available, the tools are accessible, and the will exists. As we spread the word about these resources, we look forward to connecting far-flung populations and making the world a little bit smaller, for the benefit of us all.

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This article was adapted and updated by the author for Handshake from the ITU Broadband Commission report, 2014.