Cloud Computing and Digital Divide 2.0

By Michael McMahon
 Michael McMahon

Internet connectivity is the great enabler of the 21st century global economy. Studies worldwide unequivocally link increases in Internet penetration rates and expansion of Internet infrastructure to improved education, employment rates, and overall GDP development. Over the next decade, the Internet will reinvent itself yet again in ways we can only imagine today, and cloud computing will be the primary operating platform of this revolution.

But not for everyone. Worldwide, the estimated Internet penetration rate ranges between 44% and 50%, much of which is through less productive mobile devices than desktop workstations. Overall, Internet penetration rates in developed countries stand at over twice that of underdeveloped economies. For many, high-quality Internet services are simply cost-prohibitive. Low-quality infrastructure and devices, unreliable connectivity, and low data rates relegate millions to a global online underclass that lack the resources and skills necessary to more fully participate in the global economy. First recognized as early as the 1990s, these persistent quantitative inequities in overall availability, usability, etc., demarcate a world of Internet "haves" and "have not's" known commonly as the "Digital Divide".

In the decade to come, cloud computing and computational capacity and storage as a service will transform the global economy in ways more substantial than the initial Internet revolution. Public data will become its own public resource that will drive smart cities, improve business processes, and enable innovation across multiple sectors. As the instrumented, data-driven world gathers momentum, well-postured economies will begin to make qualitative leaps ahead of others, creating an even greater chasm between the haves and have not's that we will call Digital Divide 2.0.

At one end of the chasm are modern information-driven economies that will exploit the foundational technologies of the initial Internet revolution to propel their economies forward as never before. In particular, cloud technologies will unleash new capabilities to innovate, collaborate and manage complex data sets that will facilitate start-ups, create new jobs, and improve public governance.

Meanwhile, many in the developing world will continue to struggle with the quantitative inequities of the first Digital Divide. Developing economies will very likely continue to make some progress; however, their inability to rapidly bridge the Internet capacity gap will inhibit them from fully participating in the emerging, instrumented economies of the developed world. Failing to keep pace, these economies will continue to face the perennial problems of lack of investment, lack of transparency within public institutions, and a persistent departure of talent to more developed economies.

In the early 1990s, there was much sloganeering — and some real public policy—in the United States regarding the development of "information superhighways" that would connect schools and libraries nationwide. Information sharing across educational institutions provided the critical mass for launching today's emerging information economy. However, implementation was uneven, and since that time there remain winners and losers, both nationally and globally.

As cloud computing emerges as the principal operating platform for the next-generation information economy, we are again challenged by many of the same questions from two decades ago: who will benefit most from the upcoming revolution? Will progress be limited solely to wealthy urban and suburban centers, already hard-wired with the necessary high-capacity infrastructure, and flush with raw, university-educated talent? Will poorer and rural economies be left to fall that much further behind?

Not necessarily. Industry experts and economists worldwide broadly recognize the tremendous latent economic value of cloud. Clever public-private partnerships in cloud adoption are reinvigorating and transforming municipalities. Shaping public policy begins with recognizing the transformative power of this technology and the role it can play in enabling a wide range of economic sectors.

Now is the time for public sector authorities, private enterprise, and global thought leaders to develop creative approaches to ensure some level of equity in global information technology access. Engagement now may help avoid repeating and exacerbating the original Digital Divide and posture cloud computing as a global enabler, rather than a global divider.

By Michael McMahon, Director, Cyber Strategy and Analysis at Innovative Analytics & Training

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Cloud Computing, Data Center, Policy & Regulation