On this World Information Society Day, Georgia has embarked on an important journey to bring more of its citizens online. The Government’s Open Net program, which seeks to connect about 1,000 villages across the country, was inaugurated with the first deployment in the municipality of Ozurgeti, in western Georgia, just a few days ago.
Ozurgeti is in the region of Guria, where estimates suggest that about a fifth of the population live below the poverty line. Moreover, a fifth of households in the Guria region have no internet connection at home, and those that are connected often have slow speeds, which limits the range of online services they can benefit from.
Fast, affordable, and universal access to broadband is a critical foundation for any information society, including Georgia. And internet scarcity has been especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the country had to switch to online schooling and it was found that about 15 percent of school-age children did not have internet access.
The digital gap becomes even more stark when you consider that less than half of households had a computer at home, suggesting that many of those children might not have had the appropriate devices to learn and participate in online schooling.
Kids in the courtyard of their school in Guria, Georgia. Photo: Open Net Georgia.
In Ozurgeti itself, there are only about 7,000 broadband connections for a population of 107,000. Part of the reason for this low adoption level is the limited infrastructure development—it is commercially unviable to roll out high-capacity networks due to the high upfront costs involved. In addition, many of these households might find broadband connectivity expensive.
The average expenditure per capita in the municipality is estimated to be GEL 230, and a reasonable quality (e.g., 30 Mbps) broadband connection would cost roughly GEL 30. For a household of four, that is equivalent to slightly over 3 percent of their household expenditure, a significant sum.
That share would be higher for women-headed households, minority families, or those that are socially vulnerable, all of which tend to be poorer than the average household.
The implication is that people trapped as “have-nots” will face a vicious cycle of low demand leading to less investment, and thence to limited access to useful content and services, again driving down demand.
This is where the Open Net program comes in. By creating a critical part of the infrastructure as a public good, the program seeks to break this cycle and create a foundation for the private sector to build faster, better networks that will also deliver services more cost-effectively to subscribers in rural areas. And by developing a high-capacity and operator-neutral network, Open Net allows competition in these markets, helping promote innovation and potentially bringing prices down.
In technical terms, Open Net will build “middle-mile” infrastructure, which will carry data traffic from the national backbone networks to the more isolated settlements. The private sector has done well in covering much of the country with high-capacity backbone networks, and many local and rural internet service providers are ready to offer services to new customers once this middle-mile gap is closed.
In its pilot phase, which was inaugurated last week, Open Net will connect 49 villages in Ozurgeti, where more than 8,500 households reside, giving them access to high-quality internet. In subsequent phases and with World Bank support, Open Net will connect another 950 villages—about 500,000 people—across Georgia to high-speed and affordable broadband access.
The promise of the project does not end with the creation of high-quality digital infrastructure. Indeed, this is a framework that will underpin the wider digital economy and open doors for the people and businesses in these villages to access information, services, and markets as never before.
With this new broadband capacity, soon all children in Georgia can truly enjoy online learning, along with all of the e-books and video content that their schools have already created but had previously been out of their reach. Their parents will be able to transact with banks, possibly open online shops, or—as tourism bounces back from the pandemic—set up their guesthouses for travelers from around the world looking to visit this naturally and historically rich country.
They will also be able to take full advantage of the range of e-government services that Georgia has been recognized for world over. And over time, as businesses and professions across sectors increasingly integrate digital elements, they will be ready, with skills and capabilities, to take advantage of future opportunities. The World Bank, for its part, is promoting these use-cases to maximize the social and economic benefits from improved connectivity.
People across Ozurgeti are waiting to be better connected. In the village of Likhauri, student Nikoloz Chelidze complains that he has to walk two kilometers to the village center every day to reach an internet connection good enough to join his online lessons. He hopes that a higher quality connection will solve this problem for him and his friends.
We celebrate the 52nd World Information Society Day under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdowns required by the crisis risk intensifying inequality and jeopardizing the gains made against extreme poverty.
In Georgia, Open Net will help to build back better by creating opportunities for children like Nikoloz and for the people of other villages who, no longer held back by isolation, can connect to the future and help the country on its path to recovery and resilience.