The New Road to Development: Paving the Way to Global Connectivity

Double exposure of a business man using a smart phone with a view of the city of London and the sky.
Double exposure of a business man using a smart phone with a view of the city of London and the sky.

The Internet holds the potential to become the most equal-opportunity platform for economic empowerment the world has ever known. Yet the only way to realize this goal is for the entire planet -- yes, every one of the world's nearly seven-and-a-half billion inhabitants -- to gain affordable Internet access.

This may sound like a heavy lift, but it is eminently achievable. To start with, 40 percent of the world's population, or 3.2 billion people, most of whom live in developed countries, are already online. Connecting the remaining 60 percent of the world's offline population, the majority of whom are women living in developing countries, and many of whom are poor or living in rural communities, will be more of a challenge. But it is challenge we must do everything in our power to meet.

We cannot afford to leave four billion people behind as connected countries continue to move forward towards digitally enabled prosperity.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said in South Korea last year - one of the most Internet-connected countries on earth - "the United States considers the promotion of an open and secure Internet to be a key component of our foreign policy."

Today, global commerce of all kinds, from manufacturing supply chains to services like accounting and education, are rapidly moving online. In the developing world, Internet access is especially critical for economic growth. According to the World Bank, for every 10 percent increase in broadband Internet access, a developing country realizes a 1-2 percent increase in GDP.

We now know that Internet adoption is one of the most effective development tools we have.

A new study by McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that within five years, the Internet will carry nearly 55-times more data than it carried in 2005. Already, more than 360 million people around the world take part in international e-commerce transactions. Tens of millions of small and medium-sized businesses are now exporters thanks to online platforms like Amazon, Alibaba and Rakuten.

In the coming years, the benefits of being online will become even more transformative and necessary to success than they are today.

That is why Secretary Kerry launched the Global Connect Initiative at the U.N. General Assembly last fall. Global Connect's goal is to bring an additional 1.5 billion people online by 2020.

On April 14th, Secretary Kerry will convene the first meeting of Global Connect stakeholders in Washington, DC. Foreign ministers, development banks, NGOs, representatives from 37 countries and industry leaders from companies like PayPal, Microsoft, Telenor and Mozilla Foundation will come together to focus their efforts on how to bridge the digital divide.

Our strategy is to work with every stakeholder group that touches development and global commerce in order to mainstream the view that Internet connectivity is as fundamental to economic development as roads, ports, electricity and other traditional infrastructure.

Our goals are that: (1) all countries integrate Internet connectivity as a key part of their own national development strategies; (2) international development institutions, such as multilateral development banks and development agencies, prioritize digital access; and (3) innovative industry-driven solutions to extend connectivity are catalyzed and supported through public policy and public-private partnerships.

We will encourage participants to partner with interested countries to develop tailor-made strategies to create the right enabling environments. These policies will not only spur connectivity, but also entrepreneurship, cross-border information flows, and open and competitive marketplaces.

Since we launched Global Connect last fall, we have already seen some significant investments in large-scale connectivity projects.

For example, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, is providing up to $171 million in financing for a low-cost and rapidly scalable wireless broadband network in India. Nearly 70 percent of India's 1.3 billion people lack affordable Internet access. OPIC's financing will help its Indian Partner, Tikona Digital Networks, skip over poor landline infrastructure and connect millions of Indians to the Internet through wireless technology.

Connecting everyone on the planet to the Internet is a foreign and economic policy imperative. Working together with committed partners, Global Connect will move us closer to achieving this goal.