Why Advances in Off-Grid Energy Are Vital to Ease the Digital Divide Today?

Many of us now live in a community with decent internet connectivity, but many of us do not. To those that don’t, it’s easy to recognize this fact. To those that do, it can be easy to forget it. To give into the temptation of thinking as internet technology is global and forever advancing, all people on Earth now have it. The reality is very different.

A recent estimate in April of this year held 4.57 billion of the human race are active internet users. 4 and a half billion is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s also well short of universal access, given our total population is held to be over 7.5 billion people. Yet bridging this divide is also rapidly becoming harder. Without accompanying capacity upgrades to the electricity grid, new users place additional strain on the existing network. This has widespread consequences.

Global Digital Population as of April 2020: Internet Access

A need or a want?

If the current digital divide isn’t addressed in the near term we’ll continue to have two-tiered global economic growth. Countries that have good internet access will develop digitally-anchored economies much faster than those who do not. This gulf will also widen exponentially in the future.

Digitally advanced countries will move forward‚ and those who don’t will deal with economic stagnation and regression. It’d be a mistake however to think this isn’t an issue that hurts every country. For better or worse all nations today seek to trade within the global economy.

That means there must be a greater investment in 5G and other cutting edge communication technologies globally. Estimates surrounding exactly how much faster 5G is than 4G vary. Conservative estimates say it’s at least 10 times faster, but it could become over 100 times faster. Simply put it’s going to be a game-changer for any business and community that has it.

5G Network Speed Test on a Mobile Tablet

As its global rollout and uptake continue the precise potential of 5G will become clearer. Nonetheless, it’s already known it—alongside other supporting technology such as internet exchange points, mass satellite-powered internet, and renewable energy-powered internet access—that 5G will be a key driver of new internet experience, and those who have access to it can reap immense benefits from doing so.

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between growth in internet access and speed and accompanying economic growth. After all, quality internet and a progressive approach to its offerings have helped little nations like Estonia and Malta carve out a unique niche in the global economy offering digital-friendly services.

Aside from economics alone, poor internet access will also diminish the exchange of ideas‚ experiences‚ and cultural riches between different societies. Therefore, it's in the best interests of every country to see the progress of strong and constant internet connectivity globally. So how may it occur?

Taking online off-grid

There are many reasons why pursuing off-grid powered internet access with the use of renewable energy is an ideal course of action. Nonetheless, the problems that require it are many, complex, and overall beyond the focus of this article. However, a common theme among communities who do not have strong and dependable internet access is energy insecurity.

Even if there is existing internet infrastructure, if it’s reliant on a power source that’s weak or unreliable, in the end, this will help retain the digital divide that exists between the haves and have nots of internet access globally.

Off-Grid Solar Power Facilities Installed to Enhance Electricity Reliability

Internet access powered via off-grid energy can help overcome this. But what exactly is off-grid? Definitions can vary slightly among different groups and individuals, but invariably those who operate off-grid in part or full, operate without reliance upon public utilities. “Off-griders” generate their own electricity, pump their own water, generate their own heating, and so on. Historically most human beings lived off-grid in some capacity.

But since the Industrial Revolution the capacity of governments to deliver a continual supply of electricity and water rapidly increased. This decreased the need and desire of people to live off-grid. Yet with the rising cost of living pressures in many countries, the interest in off-grid living is growing, and many of us now have the capacity to do it, at least in part. After all, if you currently have solar panels on your roof, your home is partially off-grid already.

Right now accessing the internet around the world is easy without an internet provider plan or cable connection in many communities. Utilizing cell phone data plans and free wireless hubs in many population epicenters like town squares and commercial centers are two easy ways for an individual to go online.

The downside is they often still rely on a connection to a traditional power grid in order to operate. In communities where that power supply is weak or erratic, connectivity to the internet will always suffer. It’s here that the value of off-grid internet powered by renewable energy sources is made clear.

It’s also clear that distinction must be recognized between off-grid energy’s current potential and its effective adoption. Being timid or delaying a rollout isn’t just unfortunate, but will be damaging to future growth targets. That’s why just as it is great the cost of solar is falling, it’s essential to recognize its current price right now is already far lower than it was just a few years ago.

Waiting forever for the “perfect price” will raise the overall cost of energy output across the grid as extra strain is put upon it. For those anguished about the current cost-efficiency of solar, instead of a focus on the price an emphasis on maximizing existing value is the ideal. For example, even if a rooftop solar installation will be expensive, by maximizing the use of available space and putting on as many panels as possible now, much more money will be saved in the long term.

Installer Optimizing Ground-Mounted Solar Panels to Improve Efficiency and the Investment

Making the right connection

There is an elephant in the room here. Many global communities aren't just working towards developing more reliable internet connectivity, but more reliable electricity generally. In order of priorities, it’s clear urban planners, humanitarian aid groups, and other stakeholders will commonly look to see light bulbs are turned on before wi-fi signals are.

But it’s also true that the value of internet connectivity in developing communities shouldn’t be underestimated. Greater internet connectivity offers a way to enable more people in a developing community to interact and contribute to its advancement. Increasing access to electricity and internet aren't contrasting, but complementary goals.

A key example of this is Africa. A continent projected to see rapid growth over the coming decades and be a key contributor to the global population reaching almost 10 billion by 2050. Africa’s economic potential is immense, given this projected growth in population will be driven by a 50 percent increase of Africans aged under 24 years old. The downside to this growth story is the accompanying projection that 86 percent of those living in extreme poverty in 2050 will reside in Sub-Saharan African. Greater access to the internet will offer a way to combat this, providing young Africans the opportunity to learn and work online.

Further to this, amid such a growth trajectory, there will be homegrown innovators who help increase the connectivity of the continent. Entrepreneurs and inventors who help address existing issues surrounding poverty, unemployment, and other social challenges. For those minds to be at their best, they also need the ability to access the wealth of knowledge and resources on offer at home and abroad.

Off-Grid Powered Internet Access to Bridge the Digital Divide: African Kids Using Laptop, Connecting to the Internet

In turn, it mustn’t be forgotten the growth of off-grid internet powered by renewable energy sources can encourage ancillary progress. In many emerging economies not only are the communications and power sectors incredibly difficult for the private sector to break into, but the existing public option is commonly inefficient. Put simply, more competition would lower costs and improve efficiency. Encouraging new off-grid powered internet access sources won’t right all wrongs in other sectors overnight, but it can by its example offer a step in the right direction.

How it can be achieved

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

The past decade has seen inspiring advances in both our internet and solar capabilities. In both sectors, our essential infrastructure has become more powerful, more available, and the consumer costs of it have decreased. Now in 2020, we're closing in on global grid parity in solar. We’ll also see the rollout of 5G continue around the world in the coming months and years.

Minishing the Digital Divide in Africa: Cellular Mobile Antennas on Telecommunication Tower

Because prices for solar technology have fallen, it’s now possible for many communities without reliable energy to acquire solar tech at a far more affordable price than just a few years ago. Although 5G is still in its early stages of global uptake, communications companies have learned from the rollout of 3G and 4G, and are set to offer this latest version with an eye on how it can be used to meet the emerging needs of developing communities. Unfortunately, this won't mean we’ll see solar-powered 5G networks available in every home tomorrow. But it does mean the convergence of solar and internet technology is increasing. This is great for rural communities where the digital divide has been increasing, and for many years any dream to catch up by acquiring tech in use elsewhere was impossible due to the high costs.

In the meanwhile, for those of us who enjoy access to consistent and speedy internet, there’s never been a more important time to encourage the increase in affordability and availability of the internet. The future shall see far greater use of electricity as more and more digital devices are utilized in our homes and offices, placing greater strains on all communities if greater internet accessibility and quality isn’t increased. The line between our existing infrastructure and this new, dynamic future is clear—we just have to make the connection. comment↓


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