Bridging the digital divide in Asia-Pacific
Operators, vendors, government and industry need to join hands and create an ecosystem to reach the 700 million 'unconnected' people.
We are now living in a digital world, accelerated by businesses and governments globally as they shake off the hangover of an unprecedented pandemic, and Asia Pacific is poised to benefit significantly.
But there is a real risk that this new frontier will create an even greater rift between the digitally literate and those left behind.
Our current digital transformation could leave as many as 700 million people unconnected, according to the global mobile network operators' group GSMA. Reaching these challenging remote areas requires ingenuity, innovation and, more importantly, a concerted effort by an ecosystem of operators, vendors, government and industry.
As an ICT enabler and partner in bridging the digital divide, Huawei is combining technology and social responsibility to drive economic recovery and sustainable green development in three fundamental ways.
1. Increasing ICT connectivity to drive balanced development: Connectivity and the cloud are the lifeblood of the digital frontier; unfortunately, the digital readiness of countries across the region varies greatly.
Huawei's 2020 Global Connectivity Index (GCI) shows that Singapore ranked second out of 79 countries surveyed, but Indonesia ranked 58th, the Philippines 59th and India 63rd. The Philippines and Indonesia were the lowest in fixed broadband speeds as measured by Ookla Speedtest, while Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand topped the list.
More broadly, cloud penetration in the region is less than 20%, 4G mobile coverage is slightly above 50%, and fixed broadband reaches barely one-third of households.
Huawei has been aiming to provide internet and connectivity for underdeveloped regions since 2017 through the RuralStar programme involving 12 operators in eight countries, including Thailand and Indonesia. The latest iteration, RuralStar Pro, further reduces costs by integrating baseband, radio frequency and wireless backhaul functions and consumes barely 100 watts, benefiting remote communities with populations smaller than 500.
Broadband plays an increasingly important role in the alleviation of poverty in rural areas and Huawei will continue to innovate products and solutions to bring digital to every person, home and organisation.
2. Narrowing the digital talent gap: Research by the global management consultancy Korn Ferry suggests that Asia Pacific is facing an imminent labour shortage of 47 million by 2030. This represents an annual opportunity cost of US$4.24 trillion.
The distribution of talent is uneven, according to the Network Readiness Index 2020, which shows Singapore ranked third among 134 countries with Cambodia 104th, Bangladesh 105th and Nepal 113rd.
"Digital skills and literacy are not just the foundation for the digital economy; they are also a basic human right defined by the United Nations," Huawei chairman Liang Hua said at the recent "Tech & Sustainability" forum, co-hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Michael MacDonald, chief digital officer of Huawei Asia Pacific.
Huawei used the forum to announce its Seeds for the Future Programme 2.0, with an investment of $150 million in digital talent development over the next five years, benefitting more than 3 million people, including 400,000 local ICT talents in Asia Pacific.
To promote inclusive learning opportunities amid the disruption caused by the pandemic, Huawei Singapore joined Unesco to provide high-quality learning resources. The Virtual AI Academy programme, launched initially in Singapore last year, provides 140 sets of courses covering artificial intelligence (AI), big data, 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) to help people prepare for the digital age.
In Bangladesh, a Huawei-sponsored Digital Training Bus is aimed specifically at helping rural women, with training covering 63,000 women as of December 2019.
3. Innovating for a sustainable green society: This is the only planet we have, and we need to protect it. Currently 1 million species are at risk of extinction. Climate change is increasing the occurrence of natural disasters, our oceans are 10 times more polluted than they were just four decades ago, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, which is itself melting.
Huawei has been publishing its annual Sustainability Report for 13 consecutive years, the most recent highlighting a commitment based on strategies for sustainability: digital inclusion, security and trustworthiness, environmental protection, and a healthy and harmonious ecosystem.
In Asia Pacific, Huawei has been increasing its investment in sustainable green solutions, using clean power generation, electric transport and smart energy storage.
Huawei has promoted 93 of its top 100 suppliers to set carbon reduction targets. Leading by example, the annual power generation of solar plants on Huawei campuses has reached 12.6 million milliwatts (mW).
Working to protect the environment with multiple partners, including Rainforest Connection, Huawei has helped conserve natural resources through significantly improved energy footprints of telecom equipment.
We have also helped to protect the rainforest and endangered species in the Philippines and Malaysia by combining cloud and AI technologies and solar-powered sensing devices to prevent illegal logging and animal poaching.
The adoption of digital technology follows the law of increasing returns, meaning the more we deploy and use it, the exponentially greater the economic output and wellbeing of all involved.
However, it's time for a wake-up call to prevent a widening digital divide. This starts with fair access to digital services and skills development specifically focusing on connecting the unconnected. Throughout this process we must be even more vigilant in protecting our world with green sustainable development.
After all, what's the point of replicating our world in the digital space if we can't be around to enjoy it?
Michael MacDonald is chief digital officer and executive consultant with Huawei Asia Pacific.