Internet access is increasingly seen as a twenty first century human right. It enables us to communicate with colleagues and customers, socialise with friends and family, and access essential goods and services. We use it to educate ourselves and our children.
But around the world, there is a digital divide. Billions of people expect (and, in developed nations, usually get) fast and reliable internet connections. In developing nations, 47% of households have an internet connection; in the least developed, just 19% (World Economic Forum, April 2020).
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identify investments in resilient infrastructure as critical to achieving a “better and more sustainable future for all”. As part of SDG 9, the UN has declared universal access to the Internet to be a “priority for all states”. The UN’s argument is that those who lack internet access will be left behind economically and academically, that the internet drives sustainable economic development.
Over the past year, the number of internet users globally grew by 7.5 percent as 332 million people came online for the first time. Over half of households have an internet connection. This marks progress for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But it also highlights how far we have yet to go to modernise our digital infrastructure, to make it resilient in the face of exponentially rising demand for internet access, so that every nation and person can share in its benefits.
According to the UN, four in five people in the world’s most vulnerable countries now have access to wireless networks. This has transformed financial inclusion, reduced poverty and improved access to healthcare. would add as much as US$2 trillion to their collective gross domestic product and create more than 140 million jobs.
While connecting people to the internet is essential for economic development, maintaining and improving internet speed and reliability throughout the world is also a priority. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic the resilience of digital infrastructure has been tested.
Following the rollout of homeworking policies in March 2020, global internet disruptions increased by 63% as businesses relied on their staff working from home. One study of UK SMEs found that more than eight in ten companies said their productivity was impacted by an unreliable internet connection.
Parents are also acutely aware that juggling a job and a child’s education is unthinkable – even impossible – without a stable connection. The most harrowing example of this is the parents in the UK being forced to take their children to a McDonald’s car park to get a stable internet connection for their school lessons.
Almost all internet service providers saw double-digit increases in broadband usage, as ‘the busy period’ for streaming in households typically rose from four hours on weekday evenings to ten hours a day. The surge in broadband traffic even led to the video streaming giants slowing download speeds and reducing quality to save on network bandwidth.
Yes, we made do and got by with slow or unreliable internet connections – in a very stressful situation. But life during the pandemic revealed that the digital infrastructure we rely on is not as resilient as it could or should be.
With more people coming online, consuming more data at ever faster download speeds, the volume of data is increasing. Over the past decade, this data volume has increased by 36 times – and is expected to continue increasing exponentially.
These themes highlight why there is an ever-growing need to invest in resilient and sustainable digital infrastructure. Subsea fibreoptic cables are the backbone of the internet, carrying 98% of international internet traffic. There are over 400 submarine cable systems currently active around the world, stretching for 1.2 million kilometres. A further 50 are under construction. Because they are at the heart of digital infrastructure, they enable data centres, terrestrial fibre and wireless networks to function reliably.
But this is an industry that faces significant demands moving forward. With a 25-year lifespan and a 3-year development lead time, 11 of the 14 existing transatlantic cables are expected to retire in the next 5 years. This means that by 2026, there will be a 40% shortfall in transatlantic capacity. Elsewhere, across the African continent, the world’s tech giants are scrambling to lay new subsea cables to meet the exploding demand for fast, cheap, reliable internet access.
At the same time, with increasing public awareness on climate change, firmer legislative action – and, you would hope, just doing the right thing for humanity as stewards of the planet – companies are focusing on their green policies. In digital infrastructure, this means sustainable data centres have become essential, in terms of sourcing energy from renewables, maximising the efficiency of the facility – and in making use of waste heat (whether by warming houses or growing lobsters).
A fast and reliable internet connection is increasingly seen as a twenty first century human right and a necessity for economic growth and development. Covid-19 served as a test of the resilience of our digital infrastructure – and revealed that we need to invest a huge amount to prepare it for the future. In 2020 alone, almost $400 billion was spent on new digital infrastructure – across fibre, data centres and wireless networks. We will need to spend that amount – and more – every year to prepare our digital infrastructure for the future.
Investing in resilient digital infrastructure is crucial to driving our interconnected world, underpinning economic growth and sustainable development.
The global demand for improved speed, reliability and accessibility of data is driving exponential growth in the vast digital infrastructure market.
By investing in a diversified portfolio of critical Digital Infrastructure assets, Digital 9 Infrastructure plc. will contribute to improving global digital communications whilst targeting sustainable income and capital growth for investors.