The influence of private sector giants on the digital infrastructure of the Global South

© Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Efficient digital infrastructures are the prerequisite for citizens, companies and public administrations to be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital change. In addition, the quality and reach of communication services are crucial for the efficiency of the national economy and the international competitiveness of individual states.

The digital gap between industrialised and developing countries

Currently, every second person worldwide is “offline”. This creates a digital divide between industrialised and developing countries, between social classes, between urban and rural areas and between the sexes.

By investing in digital infrastructure combined with building digital skills, the digital divide can be reduced.

An imbalance of power in the global tech ecosystem

Many countries in the Global South lack the resources and infrastructure to set the tone for digital development or help shape the rules for the international digital space. Overall, the interests and values of two powerful players – the United States and China – are shaping the global tech ecosystem, with the European Union seeking to become a third, balancing force.

According to an estimate by Forbes, fewer than 20 companies own or control 80 percent of our essential global digital infrastructure in the form of cloud storage and computing power. The largest of these platforms – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), Tencent and Alibaba – are increasingly investing in all parts of the global data value chain:

  • data collection by the user-oriented platform services,
  • data transmission by submarine cables and satellites,
  • data storage (data centers) as well as
  • data analysis, processing and use, for example by AI.

Such a concentration of digital power can pose enormous challenges for a whole-of-society approach, for example in relation to the growing gap between private and public capacities or the increasing inequality within and between societies.

International Cooperation for local network infrastructure

There are several areas in which the development community can work with, for example, African actors, to support digital development. Overall, it is important to develop policies that attract investment and stimulate innovation to create platforms and systems in the critical, e.g. broadband, digital skills or a digital trust framework for interoperability.

 Once the network infrastructure is in place, the infrastructure of local data centers can be added to support locally delivered digital services and the growth of a local digital ecosystem. 

 An overview of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), submarine cables and worldwide transmission paths is provided by the interactive ITU Interactive Terrestrial Transmission Map.

Regulations, Policies, Strategies & Laws to support development policy

The communication companies of the private sector will largely take over the expansion of digital infrastructures. Nevertheless, or precisely because of this, governments should ensure the following:

  • defining the broader strategic framework for the development of the digital economy and society, including areas such as radio spectrum policy, skills development, digital literacy, access for disadvantaged groups, etc.
  • the development of an effective legal framework for infrastructure deployment
  • direct investment or public-private partnerships to build large digital infrastructure systems

The Digital Regulation Handbook and the digital regulation online platform of the World Bank and ITU provide politicians and regulatory authorities around the world who want to reap the benefits of the digital economy and society for their citizens and businesses with practical guidance and best practices.