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World Bank Group

12/02/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 12/01/2020 23:31

COVID-19 Prompts Urgency of Bridging Digital Divide in Central Asia

ALMATY, December 2, 2020 - Almost half of the population in Central Asia is not digitally connected, missing out on employment opportunities, falling behind in learning and not receiving adequate healthcare, said World Bank representatives during an online briefing on 'COVID-19 and the Digital Divide in Central Asia ' today.

During the global fight against COVID-19, digital connectivity became a lifeline that offers the opportunity for governments, individuals and businesses to cope with social distancing, work from home, get access to distance learning and telehealth, as well as maintain business and service continuity.

'The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the connectivity chasm - the digital divide between those who are connected and those who are not,' said the World Bank Regional Director Lilia Burunciuc. 'This digital divide is worsening existing social inequalities and is hampering economic growth in the region.'

Recent studies show that countries with robust connectivity infrastructure can mitigate up to half of the negative economic impacts resulting from pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic hit hardest those countries which were lagging behind in digital development and, by 2020, had not managed to build a reliable digital infrastructure, provide digital public services (including healthcare and education), build people's digital skills or introduce digital technologies in the economy.

In Central Asia, access to high‐speed internet is still limited and costly for individuals and businesses, with the household fixed broadband penetration rate in Central Asia varying (according to TeleGeography) from 3.1 percent in Tajikistan to 35 percent in Kazakhstan and both fixed and mobile broadband Internet speeds significantly below the global average across Central Asia countries. The region's limited international broadband connectivity has led to delayed adoption of broadband technologies and lower Internet usage, especially in rural areas.

Central Asia is a landlocked region, situated far from major fiber-optic lines that lie under the sea. This complicates the provision of broadband connectivity, particularly in the mountainous countries such as the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, and in the double-landlocked Uzbekistan. As a result, the region is grappling with a number of connectivity issues, including cost, quality, and speed of the Internet, particularly in rural areas, the level of digital skills and digital leadership, the availability of leading digital infrastructure which could enable the transformation to the next level of digital government and digital economy.

Central Asia's connectivity issues are mostly due to lack of sector reforms, including significant remaining barriers to entry, particularly on international connectivity, state owned enterprise monopolies, as well as inadequate regulation, lack of independent regulatory authorities, and low levels of private investment.

'Telecom sector reforms can unlock major opportunities for Central Asia, its people and economies,' stressed Mikhail Bunchuk, World Bank Senior Digital Development Specialist. 'Just 10 percent increase in broadband connectivity can add at least 1 percent to economic growth, while 1% increase in Internet connectivity corresponds with a 4.3 percent of export growth'.

During the online event, the World Bank digital development team presented several recommendations on improving access, affordability, and security, as well as on increasing competition, attracting private investment, and modernizing sector governance. World Bank experts stressed that Central Asia needs to focus on strengthening regulatory authorities, removing any remaining monopoly rights and limiting market dominance of incumbents.

Recognizing the need to harness the power of the digital economy, the countries of Central Asia launched strategic digitalization programs and set ambitious goals for connecting the unconnected, providing digital services, and improving skills. The World Bank is helping governments of Central Asia strengthen digital connectivity across the region through financing, knowledge, and building partnerships. As part of the regionwide Digital Central Asia-South Asia program, the World Bank is funding digitalization projects in the Kyrgyz Republic and Afghanistan and is preparing projects for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, with the support of the World Bank, is also preparing a project to support digital development in the country.