Click below to expand each of the nine case studies covering a range of country experiences, topics and lessons learned, with a focus on addressing the digital divide post-pandemic.
There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a global challenge for the ICT and postal sectors and for regulators. It has taught Colombia several lessons that it hopes to draw on to maintain the positive aspects of digitization, innovation and regulatory flexibility. The following lessons led the Communications Regulatory Commission (CRC) to accelerate both internal and external processes to establish itself as an “intelligent regulator”.
The government’s digital policy is regulated in Decree 1008 of 2018 and establishes general guidelines for the use and operation of ICTs within State entities. In its 2020–2021 Regulatory Agenda, the CRC incorporated, under Innovation, encouragement of the use of emerging technologies that help solve problems and mitigate risks in process management through appropriate management of information and data quality. The purpose is to empower public entities to leverage their digital transformation and the use of emerging technologies, which they can do by reinventing or modifying processes, products or services, to ensure value is generated for the public.
Digital transformation is multisectoral and global, meaning coordination between regulators and public policy-makers and between national and international entities is essential. Regulators must use digital tools to meet their challenges; a regulator that is in line with technological reality adapts and makes regulatory decisions based on evidence, incorporating emerging technologies into its processes and the regulation itself. To face the challenges of digital transformation, regulators must be aware of trends. Data enable them to make informed decisions and to be flexible and innovative so as to leverage digital change. For this reason, the CRC is implementing the concept of “Smart Regulation”, which includes regulatory simplification, reducing regulatory burdens, generating spaces for self-regulation, and implementing innovative models such as the regulatory sandbox.
The CRC is aware of the importance of innovation and technology in its work, and has therefore taken a series of initiatives aimed at making it a state-of-the-art regulator in line with the best international practices. The main initiatives developed or planned are listed below.
In 2017, applications to the CRC were entered through four main filing channels that required various manual sub-processes for processing and response. Given the increase in the formalities of the approval process from May 2017, going from hundreds to thousands per month, steps were taken concerning:
These steps were taken to implement APIs integrating the machine-learning tool with other CRC information systems.1
CRC efforts to develop one of the first ICT sandboxes in the world culminated in May 2020 in the issuance of Resolution CRC 5980. The sandbox is applicable to telecommunication network and service providers both internationally and domestically, content and application providers, and postal service operators.
An evaluation period in 2021 will hopefully result in a set of projects authorized by the CRC to enter a trial phase – a testing ground to determine the viability of new business model innovators and analyse the relevance of making the current regulatory framework more flexible.
In 2020, the CRC made progress on a data analytics technique, web scraping, that extracts and processes information from websites. It uses the technique to automate the processes of collecting, validating and rating information reports from the agents it regulates. This first phase focused on:
In the second phase, to be developed in 2021, discussions will be held with operators to establish criteria for optimizing data capture. The discussions will also cover building the joint elements of an online tool for comparing rates that allows users to have more detailed, complete and updated information, and thus to make more informed decisions when choosing communication services.
During the launch of the Postdata portal in May 2020, the CRC also designed a data jam, which is a platform for citizen participation on which the CRC can propose challenges. These challenges are based on either the analysis and visualization of data or on information in ICT, postal or audiovisual content sectors. They are open to any interested person wishing to propose innovative solutions that will be evaluated directly by the CRC Team.
The challenges posed in 2020 concerned access to telecommunication services in the regions and mobile number portability. They called on citizens, academics and operators to co-create analytical information solutions, making use of the data sets published by the CRC on its Postdata platform. Another version of the CRC data jam is expected in 2021.
In December 2020, the CRC concluded a special cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. The agreement entails combining technical, administrative and financial efforts for the promotion and execution of research, technological development and innovation programmes or projects. The projects will serve to improve, promote, enhance and strengthen the ICT, postal and audiovisual content sectors in the country. The aim is to promote innovation, research and technological buy-in that in turn will strengthen regulatory work.The agreement will run until 2023.
In 2020, a project called “Digitization of the Regime for the Protection of the Rights of the Users of Communications Services” was carried out. Its objective was to facilitate the adoption of digitization in the development of interactions currently carried out by users of communication services. It recognizes the approach introduced by Law 1978 of 2019, whereby the State acts in the ICT sector in order to promote the digitization of procedures associated with the provision of communication services and requests from various interest groups to adopt digitization processes within their companies.
The Indonesian Government has announced that the COVID-19 vaccination programme will target 181.5 million people out of a population of 270 million within 15 months.2 Although Indonesia had originally prioritized Indonesians aged 18 to 59 for vaccination, it has now started to inoculate 21.5 million residents over the age of 60 in its “second batch” of vaccinations.3
Indonesia faces enormous logistical hurdles to achieve mass vaccination across a vast archipelago of about 17 000 islands. Tens of millions of people live in hard-to-reach areas accessible mainly by boat or poor roads.
The Government has prepared two vaccination schemes: the government (public) and independent (private) schemes. The government scheme will be carried out by the Ministry of Health and the independent scheme will be rolled out by the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises. As many as 75 million people are covered by the independent scheme, while 32 million people are covered by the public scheme. 4
In preparation for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia, the Government has appointed two State-owned companies, PT Bio Farma and PT Telkom, to develop new digital infrastructure to support both the government vaccination programme and independently purchased vaccinations. The COVID-19 Vaccination One-Data System will integrate data from multiple sources into one datum in order to prevent data duplication. The data collected will include personal details such as names and addresses. The system will record vaccine recipients by filtering individual data on priority vaccine recipients (by name, by address). It will subsequently be used to register for the two vaccination schemes, to map the vaccine supply and to distribute vaccines to vaccination locations.5
According to the digital health-care director of Bio Farma, the infrastructure will comprise four phases: track and trace technology, distribution, pre-order facility and vaccination report.6
The system being developed by the joint venture will follow the existing regulations relating to data privacy.
Now that Indonesia has begun vaccinating older persons, the Ministry of Health has added two new mechanisms for the registration and implementation of vaccinations. Vaccine participants can register on either the Ministry of Health or the Committee for COVID-19 website; or they can register via a second mechanism run by organizations and institutions collecting and registering data on older persons in their areas. Once the data have been collected, the organizations cooperate with provincial and local health offices to determine the logistics for vaccination, and then notify the participants who have registered for mass vaccinations when and where the vaccination will take place.7
The vaccination roll-out is also creating new opportunities for collaboration between the public and private sectors, prompting the Indonesian Government to partner with the private sector in order to increase the pace of the roll-out. Grab, south-east Asia’s ride-hailing app, is setting up drive-through vaccination services across Indonesia in collaboration with the government. The Grab vaccine centre in Bali is prepared to dispense 840 shots a day, for a total of 5 000 vaccinations a week.8 The programme is the first of its kind in south-east Asia.
Private entities must use a different vaccine supply from the Indonesian Government’s stockpile, provide the shots for free and submit recipient data to the Ministry of Health.
Israel is currently leading the world in vaccinating its population against COVID-19, using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This has allowed Israel to introduce digital vaccination passports, known as “green passports”. The green passport is granted to those who are a week past the second dose of the vaccine and to those who have caught and recovered from COVID-19.9 The passports are available to download on an app run by the Ministry of Health but can also be printed out on paper. They feature a QR code that, once scanned, checks Israeli health records to confirm that the holder has received both doses of a COVID vaccine. Only those who have been given both doses are allowed back into gyms, movie theatres and swimming pools. The restrictions will not apply to museums, libraries and essential shops.10
The green passports are likely to transform many industries in Israel. They have been heralded as a way to return to some form of normality and to revive struggling sectors where social distancing is not possible. 11 Tourism, music venues and airlines will all benefit from the use of green passports. Additionally, Israel is already becoming a haven for cruise ships because of the high proportion of the population that is vaccinated, along with the ease of identifying who has been vaccinated. 1212
In March 2020, the Government of Israel approved emergency regulations to allow the individual data collected from cell phones to be used to track people with a view to curtailing the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing. The sharing of private CDR data with public authorities created social value by supporting the control of COVID-19 infections, thereby saving lives. Analysis of the cellular data suggested that its use led to identification of more than one-third of all of the country’s coronavirus cases in the early weeks of the pandemic, possibly contributing to Israel’s exceptionally low initial rates of coronavirus infections and deaths. 13
However, at the same time, this transfer of data raised issues of equity and fundamental concerns about trust – citizens were concerned that their CDR data could be repurposed by government officials for other unintended and potentially harmful purposes beyond public health. Lawmakers raised privacy concerns, eventually pushing the Supreme Court to halt the programme. The Court ruled in late April 2020 that the Government must legislate the use of cell-phone tracking and that “a suitable alternative, compatible with the principles of privacy, must be found”.14
In a deal with Pfizer, Israel promised to share medical data in exchange for the continued flow of the hard-to-procure Pfizer vaccine. This could enable Israel to become the first country to vaccinate most of its population, while facilitating valuable research to help the rest of the world.15 Pfizer will receive anonymized data about the consequences, side effects and efficacy of the inoculations, and about the time it takes to develop antibodies, disaggregated by type of population, age group, gender, pre-existing conditions and other factors. The findings of this huge research project will serve to set vaccination strategies in the rest of the world and help pharmaceutical companies continue to research and develop coronavirus vaccinations and other treatments. The data will be shared with the World Health Organisation (WHO).16
Israel is an ideal country to provide these data. It has a strong, standardized public health system, with mandatory universal health care provided by four publicly funded health maintenance organizations (HMOs) with meticulously digitized medical records. The United States, for example, has 64 health jurisdictions, each with its own rules and regulations. Furthermore, although operating independently, the four HMOs in Israel have used the same electronic medical records platform for the past two decades. This centralized system gives the nation a global competitive advantage, as it started digitizing patient data years ago, and, with Israel’s relatively small population, has helped administer more than 2 million doses of the vaccine in under a month.17
The deal with Pfizer nevertheless raises ethical concerns in relation to data privacy. Dr Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert in digital privacy at the Israel Democracy Institute, contends that permission should be required to give away personal data and that sharing large quantities of information could potentially jeopardize individuals’ privacy, even if the information is anonymized.18 While speedy vaccine delivery may well be worth the price of handing over the data, Shwartz Altshuler believes that the public should have been given the choice. According to the Ministry of Health, Israel is not giving Pfizer any personal information, only general statistics.19
The privacy concerns raised have prompted the Ministry of Health to publish a partially redacted version of its agreement with Pfizer.20 While the agreement is to share only “aggregate de-identified data”, questions remain as to the nature of the data that will be shared with Pfizer.21The agreement also lacks provisions on the information security measures to be taken by Pfizer to prevent unauthorized access to data.
When Kyrgyzstan moved all education online during the COVID-19 pandemic, 20 remote schools, such as the one in Zaradaly, were left out because they had no Internet connection. Zaradaly has no electricity, fixed Internet or mobile data, so connecting the village’s school meant having two Internet Society employees and a donkey deliver the “Internet in a box”, a digital library called the ilimbox (see photo). Eleven primary school students aged between 7 and 12 learned how to use it.
The Internet Society is a non-profit that builds community broadband networks and teaches digital literacy around the world. Its aim was to bring the Internet to local schools cut off from education during the coronavirus pandemic using the ilimbox. The ilimbox is a tissue-box-sized digital library providing an interim solution for the lack of an Internet connection. Its name translates to “science in a box” – the ilimbox is a repository of downloaded Internet content that can be accessed by offline communities. It stores 500 books, 250 videos and 4 million Wikipedia articles in Kyrgyz, Russian and English. When connected to a power source, the ilimbox becomes a local Wi-Fi hot spot. Students can then install the partnering Android app and download the content stored on the drive.
Building Internet infrastructure has been a great challenge in Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous and landlocked country in which it is expensive and difficult to lay cables. While the ilimbox can act as a window for people wanting to access knowledge and the Internet, it is not a complete solution. The hope is that real Internet services can be brought to the village of Zardaly in the future, and that its residents can be taught to use it for work, study and other things.22
This case study sets out the findings of a 2020 study by the Inter-American Development Bank.23
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the connectivity and digitalization lag in countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region. The lockdowns imposed increased the demand for digital tools enabling remote access to economic, educational and social activities. Despite a significant increase in broadband network coverage in the region, a considerable number of people remain without connectivity and it is proving difficult to accelerate the digital transformation. As a result, only a few activities can be accessed remotely.
As one-third of the population in the region does not use the Internet, one of the priorities should be to connect people who are not currently connected. Connectivity is a necessary but insufficient condition for obtaining the benefits of digital technology. In particular, it can increase the effectiveness of government actions to alleviate the pandemic-related economic crisis.
The difficulties faced by countries in the region are closely related to the digital divide. On the supply side, the lack of infrastructure and connection quality are the main impediments to efficient connectivity. On the demand side, price and income or capacity factors are the main constraints.
Figure 25. Latin American and Caribbean households with an Internet connection, by location, 2018 (percentage)
Further investment is recommended, particularly in regions that have fallen behind, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, in better telecommunication infrastructure and digital skills. In the new normal, widespread home broadband and mobile coverage is more important than ever to prevent the widening of digital divides. Figures 26 and 27 summarize the recommendations for mobile and broadband networks.
Figure 26. Policy recommendations for mobile networks
Figure 27. Policy recommendations for broadband networks
The Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT) developed several recommendations and actions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to maintain the effective provision of telecommunication service. The recommendations and actions are summarized below.
The microsite “In the face of coronavirus – telecoms are on your side” :25
To avoid network saturation, the IFT issued the following recommendations for users:
Thanks to coordination between the IFT, the telecommunication industry and the Federal Government, the following was decided:
In view of the measures ordered by the General Health Council, the IFT exhorted federal, state and municipal authorities to:
The mobile service operators AT&T, Movistar and Telcel offered their users different forms of support, including an “emergency plan” giving active prepaid customers one-time access to a free package of voice calls and SMS for communications during the emergency. Other measures are as follows:
The details of each plan could be consulted on the operators’ pages or by telephone via their customer service lines. The operators strengthened their remote service channels (telephone or Internet) for balance recharges, payment of invoices and purchase of equipment, so as to limit people’s movements.
During this period, some mobile service operators offered other support schemes or measures for their users, such as flexible data limits and/or fair-use policies, at no extra charge, and extended the validity of some prepaid plans.
From April 17, customers of Addinteli, ADS Mobile, Bait-Bodega Aurrera Internet y Telefonía, Diri, Diveracy, Grupo Inten, IENTC, Megacable, Newww, Retemex, Servitron, Vasanta and Wimo (mobile virtual network operators providing services through the Wholesale Shared Network operated by Altán) were able to request access to the “Stay at home” emergency plan. The plan is designed to guarantee service and access to the network during the emergency and includes unlimited calls and SMS plus 10 GB for Internet browsing at a cost of MXN 100 per month.
The plan also includes free calls to emergency numbers such as 911 and to the Federal Government coronavirus hotline, free browsing on the health authorities’ Internet portal, access to the Ministry of Health COVID-19MX mobile application and, depending on what is implemented by each mobile virtual network operator, to educational and cultural pages.
Operators affiliated with the Independent Telecommunications Association of Mexico provided their users with support through the “Line of Life” emergency plan, to keep them connected during the health emergency. The plan guarantees subscribers, should they not be able to pay, fixed Internet service with access to 2 Mbit/s speed and, in the pay television service, access to national/local channels and to the educational, news and cultural services of the public broadcasting system.
For HughesNet satellite Internet service subscribers, installation (of leased equipment) and service activation were free until 30 June 2020. In addition, while the health emergency lasts, users will be able to continue browsing at 25 Mbit/s, because the fair-use condition of reducing browsing speed when data capacity is used up is suspended during this period.
Under the IFT collaborative regulation mechanisms, and in order to support users during the health emergency, landline and telephony service operators Izzi, Megacable, Telmex, Totalplay and Maxcom agreed to offer their clients the option of temporarily migrating to a low-cost plan.
The “Contingency Support” package fulfils the operators’ commitment and social responsibility to enable users facing a difficult situation because of the pandemic to maintain connectivity in their homes. It was available from 1 May for active subscribers with a fixed Internet access contract, but only to residential users; it costs MXN 100 per package, including value-added tax, or per month, as defined by each operator in accordance with its commercial policies. Residential users who needed it were able to migrate to this package once without incurring a penalty, in May, and to stay in it until 30 June. The plan includes an Internet speed of up to 2 Mbit/s, and unlimited browsing and data, with the exception of video and video game downloads.
The IFT approved an agreement making it easier for operators of the open television service to use additional programming channels, under the multiprogramming scheme, to temporarily broadcast audiovisual content that includes lessons broadcast by the Ministry of Public Education during the emergency. The broadcasts will run until the date on which the competent health and educational authorities decide, by official means or communication, that in-person lessons will resume throughout the country.
Although the suspension of face-to-face activities was extended to 30 May 2020, 73 per cent of IFT procedures were reactivated in such a manner that they could be carried out electronically, in order to ensure continuity of essential telecommunication and broadcasting functions during the health emergency.
It was therefore agreed to allow 126 of the 173 procedures found in the IFT catalogue to be carried out remotely, without additional costs and taking advantage of technological resources and the IFT’s five years of experience in telework.
In order to provide information to the indigenous population, the IFT made available online information materials in Mazahua, Tzotzil, Zapotec and Nahuatl containing recommendations for the use of telecommunication services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Videos and infographics are used to provide information on the benefits of telecommunications, make recommendations on hygiene and cleaning measures to prevent the spread of the virus, and promote practices aimed at avoiding saturation in terms of Internet use.27
Information on other measures for users adopted by the IFT in terms of digital platform services, pay television, telephony and fixed Internet may be consulted on the IFT portal.
On 15 March 2020, the Peruvian Government declared a state of national emergency in response to COVID-19. It subsequently adopted different types of measures in relation to telecommunications: measures that prohibit the disconnection of telecommunication services for non-payment, measures to provide relevant information to consumers about mobile services online, and measures to bridge the digital divide through the universal service fund.
Resolution No. 035-2020-PD of 16 March 2020 prohibits the disconnection of telecommunication services for non-payment. However, a further resolution adopted on April 3 allowed operators to reduce the features of telecommunication plans in the event of non-payment, and by 1 July 2020 regulators were once again allowed to shut off services for users who had not paid.
Three notable measures were undertaken to help Peruvians understand their options for telecommunication services. Under the first measure, Resolution No. 153-2020-CD, MNOs must provide customers signing a new contract with a “short contract” that summarizes the main features and characteristics of the service acquired. The second was the creation of Comparatel.pe, which allows customers to compare plans from the MNO’s commercial offer and choose the one that best suits their needs. Thirdly, the Supervisory Agency for Private Investment in Telecommunications asked all MNOs to develop a web app enabling customers to carry out transactions such as plan switching and service cancellation. It was the first regulator in Latin America to do so.
When the second wave hit Peru on 31 January 2021, the Government’s focus shifted to narrowing the digital divide by increasing service coverage and enabling greater access to telehealth and tele-education services. Currently, 30 per cent of Peru’s rural population has access to the Internet. It is hoped that this number will grow to 80 percent, in line with the rest of Peru.28
Therefore, in February 2021, the Peruvian Council of Ministers launched “Todos Conectados”, a programme aimed at bringing free Internet to local and rural areas in Peru and to closing digital infrastructure gaps.29 The programme is estimated to cost PEN 180 million (USD 40.5 million).30
Todos Conectados was launched as an emergency decree and aims to bring connectivity to 3.2 million people located in rural areas using satellite services, Wi-Fi and digital centres.31 The plan has three key areas. Under the plan, the Government will hire satellite Internet services for 1 200 public sites in 860 locations in jungle areas. 32 The plan also entails the deployment of 6 531 free Wi-Fi points in public squares in rural areas, 3 636 of which are to be established in 2021, and the installation of 1 000 digital access centres in isolated areas, 564 of which are to be established by July 2021. It is expected that these new measures will increase Internet penetration in rural areas to 80 per cent, a dramatic increase from the current rate of 30 per cent.33
COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief the digital divide in South Africa. A lack of access to affordable ICT services, infrastructure and content has exacerbated the impact of lockdowns on the poor, the remote and the marginalized.34 The digital divide is evident in South Africa in a number of ways. First, many South Africans are unable to afford the right technology or Internet access. South Africa’s data prices were criticized in 2019 by the Competition Commission for being too high in comparison to both international markets and other African markets,35 and at least 35 per cent of South Africans do not have a smartphone (equating to over 20 million people). 36 Second, South Africa has poor digital infrastructure that is unevenly distributed. The use of mobile Internet devices lags in rural areas: 44 per cent compared to 67.8 per cent in metropolitan areas and 59.5 per cent in urban areas. While 15.4 per cent of households in metropolitan areas have access to the Internet at home, only 1.2 per cent of rural households have access.37
Figure 28 demonstrates how the digital divide affects people along economic and geographical lines: 21.7 per cent of people in Western Cape have an active home Internet connection, while in Limpopo, one of the poorest provinces in South Africa, only 1.6 per cent have an active home Internet connection.38
Figure 28. Percentage of households with access to the Internet by province (South Africa)
COVID-19 has necessitated the transition to online work, study, entertainment, banking, medical appointments and more. The digital divide has meant that this transition has been markedly more difficult for the poor and those located in rural areas. Of great concern is the impact of the digital divide in education. As Czerniewicz et al. note, COVID-19 made it “impossible not to recognise the historical, geospatial, economic inequalities of the country and the world students live in”.39 Students who are unable to attend school or learn remotely face significant adverse consequences: the most enduring negative impact of COVID-19 for children may be learning losses.40 However, ICT has great potential to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and education fall-out by connecting students. The strategies adopted to utilize ICT to combat the digital divide are considered below, after a discussion of the impact of the digital divide on education during the pandemic.
The disadvantages faced by poor and remote students at university were heightened by the shift to remote learning. Such differences had previously been somewhat masked by on-campus learning. However, with the move to remote learning, students and staff who lived in areas with poor Internet connections suffered to a greater extent.41 When universities were residential with onsite learning, students were given more equitable access to computers and Wi-Fi. However, once the pandemic began, students who had not used computers in schools were unable to move to a remote learning environment as they did not get the training they needed.
Existing inequalities were highlighted at an institutional level by the disparity in responses to COVID-19.42 Previously advantaged, predominately white universities were more likely to be teaching online prior to the pandemic, as compared to historically disadvantaged, black institutions that were still grappling with how to implement online teaching when the pandemic hit. There were also disparities in the amount of support staff received to transition to online learning (including strong leadership and training).43
The closure of schools on 18 March 2020 had a greater impact on primary and secondary students than the closure of universities had on post-secondary students. While all universities are in or near urban centres and so have the tools to deliver electronic or blended learning, many schools are in poor or rural areas and do not. In poorer households, many children do not have parents able to take on the role of home-schooling.44
Further, many students also relied on free school meals, and there has therefore been increased hunger since the lockdown.45 Additionally, the impact of school shutdowns is long lasting: learning losses from children missing school can have lasting implications, stretching into the labour market and affecting lifetime earnings.46
The digital divide exacerbated the difficulties students faced with online learning. One common issue for students without high quality Internet access was downloading homework, which was difficult to access due to connectivity issues.47 Higher-income households were better placed to learn remotely, as they had access to devices, better Internet connectivity and the ability to pay for the requisite data. Poorer schools had fewer technological resources, and most had no form of computing or IT resources at all.48 Additionally, before the pandemic, many teachers had not received substantive formal technology training.49
In the second half of 2020, in-person attendance at school was able to increase; however, during the second lockdown those in the wealthiest 10 per cent of households were twice as likely to have attended school as those in the poorest 80 per cent of households.50 This demonstrates that during the lockdown periods, poorer students’ education is likely to be impacted to a greater extent as they have inferior connectivity, less access to devices and are less likely to attend school in person. South Africa is currently battling a third wave and a new strain of COVID-19, which delayed the return to schools by two weeks.51 The impact of the digital divide is therefore likely to continue as South Africa undergoes lockdowns to contain the pandemic.
As with universities, the digital divide is exacerbated by the difference in resources that South African schools have available to them. Schools in the poorest quintile have significantly fewer resources and less support, and education inequality is “entrenched” in South Africa.52 This is reflected in the digital divide and is a trend seen across Africa: half of the total number of learners does not have access to a household computer and 43 per cent have no Internet at home.53
The South African Government, MNOs and the regulator (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa), have implemented a number of initiatives to address the digital divide and mitigate its impact on students during the pandemic.
However, the benefit of zero-rated sites is undermined by the lack of devices and poor connectivity. For example, live online sessions with lecturers at universities were not zero-rated, so students who did not have enough data had to watch the sessions afterwards and were therefore excluded from participation.61 Additionally, zero-rated websites can still incur unexpected data charges or produce a sub-optimal user experience for those with no data available if webpages include files and images from external domains that are not zero-rated. Zero-rating therefore benefits those who already have access to the Internet and devices, and does not adequately address the digital divide.
South Africa has so far undertaken a range of measures to address the digital divide in education, but the measures have been described as a “disparate plethora” and, as seen above, are undermined by a lack of connectivity and devices.62 It has been argued that South Africa should also prioritize “systemic provision of free lifeline data, across-the-board increases in data caps, an undertaking not to disconnect subscribers, and dissemination of information by SMS” to address the digital divide and benefit students.63
Previous attempts to address inequality in education have been hampered by a fear of helping one group at the expense of another, but as one academic put it, “the response [to COVID-19] is that we do whatever we can to address barriers to access in the moment”.64 South Africa’s response to addressing the digital divide in COVID-19 is a work in progress, but offers some valuable lessons for other emerging markets.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is required to ensure that telecommunication services are sufficient to satisfy the public demands of those who wish to make use of such services.65 To meet this mandate, in 2017 the TRA released its policy, Promoting the Universal Provision of Telecommunication Services in the United Arab Emirates.66
The United Arab Emirates was already a global leader in terms of fibre broadband availability and take-up, with 75 per cent of households connected to fibre broadband networks and over 90 per cent of homes passed by fibre in 2017.67 However, the TRA was concerned that consumers located outside the main population centres were receiving a lower-quality service. The policy therefore required that all consumers in permanent dwellings should have access to services that can deliver basic voice, television services and high-speed data packages of at least 10 Mbit/s.68
In order to achieve universal service in an efficient way that maximizes net benefits to society, the TRA preferred fibre to the home (FTTH, because once the fibre network was deployed, licensees would be able to offer higher data speeds to customers without significant expenditure.69 As a result of this policy, the United Arab Emirates now has the highest fibre penetration level in the world.70
The onset of COVID-19 made it critical for households to have access to a high-speed, quality service so that people could work and study from home. To ensure that consumers in the United Arab Emirates were receiving a high quality of service (QoS) during this period, the TRA created a dataset comparing the number of households, buildings, schools and hospitals in each of the seven emirates with the number of households, hospitals, schools and buildings that the licensees had provided with FTTH, based on the licensees’ data. It also requested licensees to provide information regarding the technology being deployed, the location of the optical distribution frame (ODFs) and points of presence (PoPs), and an indication of the year and quarter by which the region would be covered by fibre.
By comparing the two datasets and receiving up-to-date information, the TRA was able to create an internal interactive fibre deployment monitoring dashboard that is updated quarterly based on updates from licensees (see Figure 29). It is thus able to better monitor implementation of the 2017 universal service obligations (USO) policy and ensure that section 13 of the Telecommunications Act is satisfied.
Figure 29. Example of the United Arab Emirates TRA dashboard (indicative data)