World Economic Forum launches EDISON Alliance focused on digital inclusion, digital divide
Expanding access to reliable broadband–bridging the digital divide as its commonly referred to–isn’t a new concept; in fact, it’s been at least a talking point if not a focus of numerous public and private organizations for years. But the harsh realities of the global COVID-19 pandemic have sufficiently highlighted the problems presented when more than 3.5 billion people don’t have reliable access to broadband that the World Economic Forum is looking to better address the issue via its EDISON Alliance, a new group announced last week during The Davos Agenda virtual event.
The group’s goal is to “accelerate and foster unprecedented collaboration between the ICT community and other critical sectors of the economy” with an eye on “rapid digital development.”
As WEF Founder Klaus Schwab put it: “The time for gradual change toward digital access and adoption is over. we must highlight the critical nature of this challenge as foundational to so many others—and bring those who care about education, health, climate, equality and growth to also be champions in our mission to bring connectivity to all.”
Serving on the EDISON Alliance board are Chairman Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon, Mastercard Executive Chairman Ajay Banga, Rawanda’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology and Innovation Paula Ingabire, Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert Smith, and Shobana Kamineni, executive vice chairperson of Apollo Hospitals.
“Champions” of the EDISON Alliance familiar to readers of this site include American Tower CEO Thomas Barlett, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm, GSMA Director General Mats Granryd, MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita, Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark, and Qualcomm CEO-elect Cristiano Amon. A full list of champions is available here.
Speaking during a virtual panel session, Vestberg reckoned that changes prompted by COVID–telehealth, working from home and remote education, for instance–have “leapfogged at least five to seven years in digital inclusion in the world, or digital advancement in the world.” He noted that this has been a long-term dialogue pre-COVID and characterized recent advancements as “unheard of. Everything has basically changed. For the last 10 years I’ve actually been talking about mobility, broadband, and the cloud…because it’s efficient, it’s scalable, and it’s sustainable.”
In the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, they’re all “underpinned by the mobility, broadband, and the cloud,” Vestberg said. “But we also need to be clear that the work that government, private sectors, different industries, ICT sectors have done in the last nine to 12 months is just unheard of…[but] still it’s over 3 billion people on this earth that are no online.”
Vestberg said the mission of the EDISON Alliance is marked by great opportunity and great risk. With some of the lessons learned from the response to COVID-19, “We can now accelerate an inclusive world…We’ve proven that these tools are working…The risk is, of course, that we are accelerating the divide in our society by this digital transformation you see right now and suddenly we have more people behind,” particularly already vulnerable groups and populations.
Ingabire of Rawanda said, based on how countries in her region have handled the pandemic, “It makes it even more urgent to think about digital inclusion.” Progress in the regions, she said, “Is thanks to some of the investments that have been made over the past few years in putting in place the right digital infrastructure.” But, “We still see a huge divide” particularly on the African continent.
“I think what we’re looking at is how do we create the right policy, regulatory and business environment that is conducive and attractive to partnerships going forward,” Ingabire said, highlighting that neither the government nor private sectors have sufficient resources to unilaterally address the massive issue.
She agreed with Vestberg’s comments on prioritization of digitalization for healthcare, financial services, and education, but appended to that, “Rather than think about siloed implementation of what are their connectivity needs…how do we think about aggregated demand that will allow us to really tap into these economies of scale, lower the cost of ensuring we bring everybody onboard and make sure everyone is connected in a meaningful manner.”