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Innovating to bridge the digital divide

Innovating to bridge the digital divide

The digital divide remains a significant challenge, despite long-standing efforts from governments, NGOs, telecom and internet providers and other technology players. In 2023, 2.6 billion people, a third of the world’s population, lacked internet access according to data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Some of these people are in rural and remote parts of developed countries, but most are in the global south where connectivity is a major hurdle.

Digitalization, powered by high quality connectivity, is central to more equal access to healthcare, education and employment, and can enable small businesses to participate in the digital economy. The digital divide hurts those communities who need the opportunities and economic prosperity offered by technology the most. Hence, bridging the digital divide is fundamental to sustainable development.

Nokia’s approach

At Nokia we have always felt strongly about bridging the digital divide. As a pioneer and global leader in communications technology, we feel we have a responsibility and an opportunity to connect the unconnected through our broadband and innovative connectivity solutions. Bridging the digital divide is a key pillar of our sustainability strategy, where in addition to connecting the unconnected and underserved, we are focused on increasing the uptake and knowledge of digital technologies and skills.

We have built technology to successfully connect 372 million new subscriptions in 2023 and helped develop digital skills for another 691,534 people through our social engagement programs over the last two years. These are major achievements, but we are setting our sights even higher with the aim to connect two billion new subscriptions by 2030. This requires commitment, innovation and cross-sector collaboration. Below are a few examples:

Connecting the unconnected and underserved

  • Peru: Buried in the Amazon River, a new subaquatic network will interconnect 500,000 users across 400 communities located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. This project shows that innovation and cross-sector collaboration can help to get to those hard to reach places.

  • Africa: Nokia has created Rural Connect, an off-grid circular connectivity solution for rural markets. This solution is a fully re-deployable, expandable site that can connect via microwave, user equipment relay, or satellite and can be powered by various renewable energy sources as well as AC power sources. One of the first implementations of Rural Connect was in a town in Cameroon. Within the first two weeks, the number of mobile users increased fivefold. The site’s power consumption (for 2G/4G) was under 400W, allowing it to operate off-grid, even during the rainy season, using solar power. Nokia has since begun deploying over 300 sites in Egypt, offering mobile services for the first time to off-grid communities.
  • Brazil: Nokia is working with Solis in Brazil to bring private wireless connectivity to Brazilian farmers who currently lack wireless broadband on their farms. This will support them as they look to use data and resources (water, feed, fertilizer) more efficiently and reduce waste and emissions where possible.   
  • South Africa: Working with Fibertime, we are helping to bring fiber to rural townships via the local power lines in an affordable, secure way. Uncapped pay as you go internet service models could play a catalytic role in enabling new business models and services in these areas. 
  • United States: One of the most exciting areas of digital inclusion innovation is space. Non-terrestrial networks using low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites can help connect underserved areas on earth. An example of this is the recent announcement from AST SpaceMobile that by working with US-based operators and partners they can work tougher to eliminate connectivity gaps across the United States. To achieve complete coverage, Nokia is working with AST SpaceMobile to enable direct-to-device communications via LEO satellites. AST has demonstrated a video call using one LEO satellite in orbit, achieving a 14 Mbps connection between a smartphone and a user halfway across the world.

As we look to the future, improving digital inclusion is a key objective of the next generation 6G technologies. The focus of Nokia Bell Labs researchers as well as our standardization team is to promote the idea of having 6G-compatible satellites manage location services for ground-based devices. This approach can reduce costs and power consumption, particularly for meters, sensors, and drones. Along with promoting sustainability, this is why Nokia researchers are also exploring novel ways to make more power-efficient 6G radios, base stations and devices.

Having connectivity is one part of the equation. Having the rights skills and knowledge of digital tools can improve access to economic opportunities, healthcare, education and other resources. This is another part of the equation and why Nokia’s corporate community investment and CSR approach is directed at this area.

Building digital technologies and skills

  • India: Smartpur is a digital village ecosystem project that looks to empower local rural entrepreneurs and provide them with facilities to make services accessible at the village level through Smartpur centers. In 2023, we supported Smartpur centers in 350 villages across India and the number of direct beneficiaries reached in 2023 was 119 795. The project was recognized as an award winner at the International Telecommunication Union World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) earlier this year.

  • Africa: Nokia has been involved in building digital inclusion in Africa for over a decade. Our latest engagement includes the association with Partnership for Digital Access in Africa (PDAA) initiative launched in May 2024 by the White House in the U.S. It is focused on “doubling the number of people connected to and meaningfully using the internet in Africa.” With only around 40% of Africans currently connected, this initiative has far-reaching implications for hundreds of millions of people, many in rural areas. Along with connectivity, it will also focus on improving digital skills with a focus on women and girls.

These and many other technological innovations and interventions are key to building more resilient nations, more sustainable economies, and at the same time more responsible business. There is no one-size fits all approach and working with local partners and communities is important.  Whether connecting satellites in space or repurposing old communication equipment for a solar-powered base station, Nokia is leveraging its innovation and creativity to connect unconnected rural communities.

Subho Mukherjee

About Subho Mukherjee

Subhagata Mukherjee (Subho) is a global leader with broad experience in sustainability, strategy, technology and innovation management, organizational transformation and leadership positioning at large multinational organizations which have long history of impact at scale on society through technology.

At Nokia, Subho is the Vice President & Global Head of Sustainability and leads the company’s global sustainability strategy, programs, and initiatives, including its overall Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) responsibilities. Subho’s focus areas include climate, circularity, bridging digital divide, industrial decarbonization, responsible supply chain, human rights, responsible use of technology and new incubations in climate and nature related technologies.

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