“According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 360 million young people currently do not have access to the internet,” says Heather Johnson, Vice President for Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at Ericsson. “And now with the global pandemic, 90% of students worldwide are impacted, per data from UNESCO. That’s 1.6 billion young people.” For many millions who lack connectivity or online learning programs, learning has simply stopped.
Johnson was explaining why, in August, Ericsson became the first company to join a major initiative called GIGA, established in 2019 and spearheaded by UNICEF and the ITU. It aims to connect every school worldwide to the internet by 2030, and extend connectivity to far more young people everywhere. It’s an urgent and vast challenge.
“Because of the pandemic, the inequalities are just exacerbated,” says Johnson. “The divides are starker.”
Ericsson’s contributions to the initiatives include the application of its technology and data expertise, connections to customers who can help evaluate and address key issues, and funding. “We have strong competencies in data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning,” Johnson says.
As a leading mobile technology company, Ericsson has deep relationships with mobile carriers around the world, and long experience partnering with them about who, what, and where is connected. Leveraging this data and software, the company will work with GIGA, governments and other partners to analyze the data with a combination of AI and software to map where exactly are the school connectivity gaps in 35 countries around the world. Understanding the extent of the problem is the first step towards fixing it.
Ericsson has extensive experience working with digital technology and education. Beginning in the mid-2000s it began working with economist and development expert Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia in the Millennium Villages Project. The effort aimed to use technology as an intervention for sustainable development across villages in ten countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, helping more than 500,000 people lift themselves out of poverty. From that work came a lot of experience about how technology could be a lever for development.
In recent years the UN has aggressively turned its attention to the importance of connectivity with regard to global progress. Secretary-General António Guterres, an engineer, created a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation in 2018. It aimed to assemble an unprecedented set of forces — including business, governments, international organizations, technical experts, and a range of groups from civil society — to figure out how connectivity and digital technology can more rapidly advance global progress. This summer, the effort, chaired by Melinda Gates and China’s Jack Ma, released its report, the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The roadmap explicitly acknowledged the GIGA project, calling it a groundbreaking example of the kind of work needed.
As the initiative gathers steam, other powerful partners are joining, including Softbank.
The pandemic has reinforced for leaders around the world the critical importance of digital connectivity for society. “If this was on the back burner before, now it’s really coming to the fore,” says Johnson. “Governments are realizing what we in the industry and at Ericsson have known for a long time.”
Recently, Johnson was joined by Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, deputy executive director of UNICEF, for a Techonomy session to explore in more detail the challenge and opportunity of connecting the schools of the world to the net.