Ben Crawford is CEO of CentralNic, a fast-growing public tech company that provides online marketing and online presence tools globally.
Both the digital divide and the climate crisis are global issues that have a disproportionate impact on developing countries. I have previously written about the steps tech companies can take to help close the usage gap and support new internet users to share in the gains of the digital economy. However, I was interested to come across a report by Teddy Woodhouse for The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation, that showed how sustainably closing the internet connectivity and usage gaps in low- and middle-income markets can also help in the fight against global warming.
Quoting statistics from the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the A4AI report highlights how around 85% of the world population was covered by a 4G network in 2020; this number hovered around 44% in Africa and dropped to 41% in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). So, the first challenge in reconciling connectivity and green goals relates to the physical internet infrastructure required to fill these gaps.
Broadband network infrastructure has a significant carbon footprint, which will only increase as more networks are built. Greening this infrastructure will largely fall to policymakers to implement new standards for network construction, operation and maintenance, such as regulation that encourages shared infrastructure, access to a clean-as-possible electricity grid and fair tariffs on infrastructure usage and imports of green equipment.
However, A4AI highlights another critical area—internet use—where businesses can have a big impact. Because, as more people connect to a network, the internet’s carbon footprint increases, but the actual environmental impact per user decreases. Simply put, this is because these networks are wasting huge amounts of energy if hardly anyone uses them. As A4AI explains, “Internet infrastructure, on its own, does not create value that justifies its environmental costs…The greatest possible benefit from this infrastructure comes from the greatest possible number of people connecting to it and using it to create new businesses, learn new skills, build communities, lead movements, and transform societies.”
For any business or organization that has a presence in emerging markets, wishes to expand into emerging markets and/or is invested in building an inclusive global digital economy in a time of increasing geopolitical and digital fragmentation, helping as many people as possible to connect to your services is not only a smart business decision. When done responsibly, it can also have transformative societal and environmental benefits, on both a local and global scale.
A4AI offers the following advice to support inclusive internet use. While the research is largely geared towards policymakers, legislators alone will not be able to make all of these necessary changes, so I believe these guidelines are also applicable to companies, particularly tech companies.
• Support digital skilling and local content creation. These are some of the most direct ways to support inclusive internet use. This can range from charitable giving and investment to offering services in local languages.
• Have an e-waste strategy. Hardware companies should develop a cohesive e-waste strategy, support right to repair movements and legislation and consider engaging in product recycling and refurbishing initiatives that help lower-income users to access their devices.
From my perspective, businesses should also consider these areas of impact.
• Design with mobile and low bandwidth in mind. Most new internet users are connecting to the internet via smartphones, which already consume less energy than desktop computers. This is why it’s important to design products and services for mobile users, as well as consider ways that users who may be struggling with low bandwidth or consume data on a pre-paid plan can still meaningfully connect to services.
• Engage in public-private partnerships (PPPs) and initiatives. Better-resourced firms should consider engaging in PPPs, for it’s when the public and private sectors work together that the most transformative changes occur. For some time now, there has been a regrettable climate of mutual distrust between governments and the highest profile tech companies, with the private sector resisting regulation and the public sector racing to keep up with tech innovation’s pace—and this urgently needs to change.
A global digital economy that is focused on closing the digital divide must embrace private-public collaboration and multi-dimensional solutions that are social, not solely technical. When we distance ourselves from techno-optimism and begin to embrace the specific technical, financial, cultural and regulatory frameworks needed to affect change, we unlock the potential of the digital economy to serve everyone in an inclusive and environmentally sustainable way.