The importance of connecting Central Asia

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, according to representatives of the World Bank.

During the global fight against Covid-19, digital connectivity has become 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. But many are missing out.

“The Covid-19 crisis has underlined the connectivity chasm — the digital divide between those who are connected and those who are not,” says World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia 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.

High costs

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 per cent in Tajikistan to 35 per cent 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 fibre-optic lines that lie under the sea. This complicates the provision of broadband connectivity, particularly in the mountainous countries such as the Kyrgyzstan 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.

Unlocking opportunities

“Telecom sector reforms can unlock major opportunities for Central Asia, its people and economies,” says Mikhail Bunchuk, World Bank senior digital development specialist. “Just a 10 per cent increase in broadband connectivity can add at least one per cent to economic growth, while a one per cent increase in internet connectivity corresponds with 4.3 per cent of export growth”.

The World Bank digital development team has out forward several recommendations on improving access, affordability, and security, as well as on increasing competition, attracting private investment, and modernising sector governance. World Bank experts stress that Central Asia needs to focus on strengthening regulatory authorities, removing any remaining monopoly rights and limiting market dominance of incumbents.

Recognising the need to harness the power of the digital economy, the countries of Central Asia have launched strategic digitalisation programmes and set ambitious goals for connecting the unconnected, providing digital services, and improving skills.

The World Bank is in turn helping the region’s governments strengthen digital connectivity through financing, knowledge, and building partnerships. As part of the regionwide Digital Central Asia-South Asia programme, the bank is funding digitalisation projects in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and is preparing projects for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan is also preparing a project to support digital development in the country, again with the support of the World Bank.

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