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Opinion

Closing Asia's digital divide should be a post-COVID priority

Companies and governments must work together to bring hundreds of millions online

| South Asia
Family members look into a smartphone in Hamba Praing village, Indonesia, on Feb. 22: more than 2 billion people in Asia still are not online at all.   © Reuters

Scott Beaumont is President of Google Asia Pacific.

Across Asia, governments and businesses are grappling with how to recover from COVID-19 and build a stronger economy for the future. Here is one step that would help: close the region's digital divide.

The coronavirus struck at the end of a decade of transition. By 2019, there were 2.3 billion people using the internet in Asia Pacific, more than the rest of the world put together, and the region was shaping the development of technologies from digital payments to artificial intelligence.

At first glance, the impact of the virus has only accelerated that shift of technological weight and influence from West to East. Changes we thought would unfold over years -- widespread working and learning from home, Asia's big corporations moving to cloud computing, small businesses digitizing -- have happened in a matter of months. Countries like South Korea, which invested in digital skills and infrastructure early, have been able to adjust and begin reopening fast.

At the same time, the impact of the virus has made gaps in internet access and online opportunity starker, threatening Asia's future technology leadership.

Despite extraordinary progress over the past decade, the region's digital economy remains deeply divided along economic, geographic and gender lines. More than 2 billion people in Asia still are not online at all -- including, mobile operator association GSMA estimates, 207 million women in South Asia alone who do not own mobiles.

For those who are online, economic opportunity is not equally available: in Southeast Asia, research from Google, Bain and Temasek found that seven big cities make up more than half the digital economy despite having just 15% of the population. And it is not a problem limited to developing economies -- in Japan, almost 60% of small or medium-sized businesses do not yet have a presence online, according to IPSOS research prepared for Google.

In the wake of the pandemic, the risk is that these gaps will only widen.

With business, education and health care moving online at unprecedented speed, technology skills will become more important to more types of work at a faster rate than we imagined even in January.

A student attends an online class at his home in Ahmedabad on Mar. 17: changes we thought would unfold over years have happened in a matter of months.   © Reuters

Those without digital access or skills face falling further behind. Families who cannot use the internet will be denied services that are increasingly delivered online. Small businesses unable to trade online will be less competitive. Job seekers without the ability to use technology will be shut out of employment.

A deeper digital divide would entrench social and economic inequality and deny Asian economies the talent of hundreds of millions of people with the ability to contribute to economic recovery. It would hamper Asian entrepreneurship at the time when the region needs it most.

To combat this risk and set Asia up for the post-COVID-19 decade, governments and the tech industry should work together on a new agenda to make the region's internet more accessible and its digital economy more inclusive.

Investment in telecommunications infrastructure and cheaper phones and data will help bring more people online -- but those steps alone are not enough.

First, all Asian governments should make digital inclusion central to their recovery and job creation plans, linking it to economic development and giving it the same weight as priorities like infrastructure investment, education and health. Words and intent matter, and this would send a clear signal of ambition, as well as challenging the private sector to rise to the task.

Second, within those broader plans, we should build public-private coalitions to expand digital literacy and skills, focusing first on helping small businesses use the internet and expanding to all stages of education and work training.

Indonesia -- where the government's digital strategy ranges from teacher training to helping developers master AI -- offers a model for the type of wide, deep approach needed across the region.

Third, in places where there are intractable digital access gaps that need special attention, we should put in place more targeted programs to rebalance the scales. The Asia Foundation -- with support from ASEAN and Google.org -- is introducing a program where grassroots organizations run digital literacy training for marginalized regional communities, female business owners, underemployed young people and people living with disabilities across Southeast Asia. We will need many more such programs.

Finally, we should back Asian talent to advance technology itself in more equitable ways, through research, investment and training in areas where the region already has natural strengths.

Across the region today, engineers are working on digital payment systems that help people access financial services for the first time; language translation models that help people use the internet in their own tongue; and apps that help people with physical and cognitive disabilities overcome the obstacles they face every day.

Not only would building this expertise make the internet more inclusive for hundreds of millions more people, it would give Asia a bigger role in developing the next generation of technologies. That, in turn, would flow through to economic growth and productivity.

In the first decade of the century, Asia largely adopted technology imported from elsewhere. In the 2010s, it began to influence and lead. In the post-COVID-19 decade, Asia can set the pace for the digital economy everywhere -- but only if we give everyone in the region access to the opportunities technology creates.

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