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The Internet as the great equaliser

Håkon Bruaset Kjøl, Senior Vice-President and Head of Corporate Affairs, Asia, Telenor Group | Oct. 2, 2015
It allows knowledge and opportunity for all, regardless of where people live or what background they are from.

While the path to Internet for all seems daunting, consider 15 years ago in Bangladesh. Nobody believed that a country with a low average income would be able to sustain growth within mobile and Internet services but today, the country has more than 100 million mobile subscribers.

We have done this by taking a mass-market approach with services that are tailored to what consumers in these Asian markets can afford. The reality is that most people in low-income markets cannot afford post-paid plans, so they purchase our pre-paid services with the cash they have on hand — similar to how they would buy individually portioned shampoo packs or hand soap. Whether a toiletry or, nowadays, an hour of mobile Internet — 'sachet' purchases are the only way our low-income Asian customers buy their daily necessities.

With this affordable connectivity comes a wave of new opportunities, such as financial, health and education services. For example we partner with the Wikimedia Foundation to provide free access to the information on Wikipedia.org as an educational resource, and in Bangladesh, our Grameenphone business unit has created online schools that allow children in rural areas access to teachers located in urban centres.

Mobile financial services will be another catalyst for change, provides access to banking services for people that do not have geographical access to brick-and-mortar banks. More than 90 percent of Bangladeshis are 'unbanked' and offering them mobile banking options opens up countless opportunities for everything from taking out loans to paying bills without having to travel far and queue up for hours.

For example in Pakistan, Easypaisa, the country's first and largest branchless banking solution, moved nearly 2 percent of the country's GDP in 2014. Beyond offering banking solutions for the first time to many Pakistanis, the service is also offering insurance in a market where insurance penetration is estimated at less than 1 percent — one of the lowest in the world. Micro-health insurance offers a promising way to improve access to health care by providing affordable assistance for those that would be most hard-hit by unexpected illness or accidents.

While the gap between the haves and have-nots in Asia is rising, we can reverse these inequalities through greater connectivity and breaking down the digital divide. This in turn will help emerging economies — and all members of their societies — seize the opportunity to leapfrog into a digital future.

Most people can remember when they got their first mobile phone. They can remember how old they were, where they were, and most probably, vividly remember that person they made their first phone call to. We believe connectivity is truly life changing. It changes the way that people interact with family and friends, the way they work, and the opportunities they have. With the access to information and sense of empowerment that connectivity affords, digital inclusion can level the playing field, and this is truly equality in practice.

 

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