How do you figure out the best way to bridge the digital divide? You start with maps.
Swedish networking giant Ericsson and UNICEF are partnering to map school connectivity in 35 countries by the end of 2023. The effort is part of the Giga Initiative, which aims to connect every school to the internet.
Mapping school internet access is just the first step in making sure connectivity is ubiquitous globally, Heather Johnson, Ericsson vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility, said in an interview.
"The ultimate goal is, of course, connecting every school," Johnson said. But "first you have to understand where the gaps are."
The mapping will take place using artificial intelligence and machine learning, Johnson said. Along with committing resources for data engineering and data science, Ericsson also has made a "multimillion-dollar commitment" to the Giga Initiative. The data collected through the mapping process will help governments and private organizations determine where internet connectivity needs to be built.
The world has grappled with a digital divide for decades, with an estimated 3.5 billion people lacking access to stable internet. The novel coronavirus pandemic has made the need for high-speed, broadband internet even more obvious. As people work from home, they require steady connections to get their tasks done and kids need internet access to complete their digital coursework. Without connectivity, none of that is possible, disadvantaging people who live in places without reliable, fast internet access.
In the US alone, an estimated 18 million people in the US don't have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to a US Federal Communications Commission tally from 2020. Some estimates, which blame faulty FCC maps, are much higher. Globally, 360 million young people don't have internet access, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Pandemic-related school closures have impacted 94% of the world's student population and up to 99% of students in low and lower-middle income countries, according to a UN report.
"COVID-19 has exacerbated or highlighted the divide that maybe we -- Ericsson -- knew about it, but society at large didn't really understand how much inequity there is by not being connected," Johnson said.