Building fiber infrastructure to trigger a wider economic and social transformation
On this World Information Society Day, Georgia has embarked on an important journey to bring more of its citizens online. The Government’s Open Net program, which seeks to connect about 1,000 villages across the country, was inaugurated with the first deployment in the municipality of Ozurgeti, in western Georgia, just a few days ago.
Ozurgeti is in the region of Guria, where estimates suggest that about a fifth of the population live below the poverty line. Moreover, a fifth of households in the Guria region have no internet connection at home, and those that are connected often have slow speeds, which limits the range of online services they can benefit from.
and participate in online schooling.
In Ozurgeti itself, there are only about 7,000 broadband connections for a population of 107,000. Part of the reason for this low adoption level is the limited infrastructure development - it is commercially unviable to roll out high-capacity networks due to the high upfront costs involved. In addition, many of these households might find broadband connectivity expensive.
The average expenditure per capita in the municipality is estimated to be GEL 230, and a reasonable quality (e.g., 30 Mbps) broadband connection would cost roughly GEL 30. For a household of four, that is equivalent to slightly over 3 percent of their household expenditure, a significant sum. That share would be higher for women-headed households, minority families, or those that are socially vulnerable, all of which tend to be poorer than the average household.
The implication is that people trapped as “have-nots” will face a vicious cycle of low demand leading to less investment, and thence to limited access to useful content and services, again driving down demand.
Closing gaps in infrastructure
This is where the Open Net program comes in. that will also deliver services more cost-effectively to subscribers in rural areas. And by developing a high-capacity and operator-neutral network, Open Net allows competition in these markets, helping promote innovation and potentially bringing prices down.
In technical terms, Open Net will build “middle-mile” infrastructure, which will carry data traffic from the national backbone networks to the more isolated settlements. The private sector has done well in covering much of the country with high-capacity backbone networks, and many local and rural internet service providers are ready to offer services to new customers once this middle-mile gap is closed.
In its pilot phase, which was inaugurated last week, Open Net will connect 49 villages in Ozurgeti, where more than 8,500 households reside, giving them access to high-quality internet.
Opening doors to the future
The promise of the project does not end with the creation of high-quality digital infrastructure. Indeed, this is a framework that will underpin the wider digital economy and open doors for the people and businesses in these villages to access information, services, and markets as never before.
Their parents will be able to transact with banks, possibly open online shops, or - as tourism bounces back from the pandemic - set up their guesthouses for travelers from around the world looking to visit this naturally and historically rich country.
They will also be able to take full advantage of the range of e-government services that Georgia has been recognized for world over. And over time, as businesses and professions across sectors increasingly integrate digital elements, they will be ready, with skills and capabilities, to take advantage of future opportunities. The World Bank, for its part, is promoting these use-cases to maximize the social and economic benefits from improved connectivity.
Realizing the promise
People across Ozurgeti are waiting to be better connected. In the village of Likhauri, student Nikoloz Chelidze complains that he has to walk two kilometers to the village center every day to reach an internet connection good enough to join his online lessons. He hopes that a higher quality connection will solve this problem for him and his friends.
We celebrate the 52nd World Information Society Day under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdowns required by the crisis risk intensifying inequality and jeopardizing the gains made against extreme poverty.
And help the country on its path to recovery and resilience.
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