LONDON – Access to the Internet has greatly expanded and the focus should now be on the willingness and ability of citizens to use it for productive purposes, according to a new report published, “Redefining the Digital Divide,” by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Current strategies for overcoming the digital divide do not necessarily address the underlying gaps such as affordability, usage and relevance of content, with country approaches varying significantly in terms of leadership, funding and technologies. The report, commissioned by Huawei, compares the strategies of Australia, France, India, Russia, the UK and the US. It includes a survey of 218 telecommunications industry executives and government policymakers.

The report’s key findings include:

Affordability remains a key obstacle to ICT adoption.

  • 63 percent of survey respondents cite affordability as the most serious contributor to the digital divide, while 56 percent cite the lack of ability/skills to use ICT (information and communications technology).
  • Research from France and the US shows that broadband penetration levels fall by as much as half among lower income populations.

The urban/rural divide is a key concern, particularly the need for greater speeds outside major urban areas.

  • Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents say there is an urban/rural digital divide in their country.
  • In the US, about 14.5 million of the 19 million people that lack broadband access are in rural areas.

Policymakers and telecommunications executives are sharply divided on the key obstacles to solving the divide.

  • Policymakers, obviously concerned with social inclusion, are twice as likely as telecoms executives to cite the lack of ability/skills to use ICT as the primary contributor to the digital divide today.
  • Telecoms executives, more concerned with reaching new customers and selling higher-end services, are twice as likely as policymakers to view the urban/rural divide and speed as major hurdles.

Funding is the biggest area of disagreement between the industry and policymakers.

  • The use of universal service funds and investment models for less profitable urban and rural areas are cited as key obstacles to further development.
  • Funding schemes vary greatly between countries—from heavy government-led investment in Australia to a laissez-faire approach in the US. It is too early to tell which will deliver the greatest common good.

Competition is crucial but regulation is equally important.

  • A majority of survey respondents say regulation is a benefit rather than a burden in creating greater access to the Internet.
  • In France, which has a strong regulatory regime, 86 percent of households have a choice of at least two providers.
  • In the US, by contrast, a weak regulatory environment has led to agreements between companies not to enter each others’ territories, and only 14 percent of households have a choice of cable operator.