By Zohra Yermeche Head of Connect To Learn
Submitted by Ericsson
Two years into our groundbreaking partnership with UNICEF, in support of Giga, the joint ITU and UNICEF initiative, we have helped to lay a foundation for more than two million children worldwide. And it all begins with one critical task: mapping schools and school connectivity. Here’s why it matters.
How different do you think the quality of your life and the prospects afforded to you would have been had you never experienced connectivity?
Sadly, today that is the reality for hundreds of millions of children the world over. Today an estimated 2.7 billion people do not have access to connectivity, according to the ITU’s latest State of Broadband report, with a high proportion coming from low and middle-income economies. This meant that around 463 million children were left without access to remote learning through the pandemic, according to UNICEF figures. To put that number into context, that’s just over half the total population of Europe.
Why connecting schools matters
Living without connectivity or the skills to access the benefits of connectivity detaches you from a world of opportunities. For children especially, connectivity creates pathways to a better future thanks to the increasing prominence of using digital tools and learning content in education systems and emerging hybrid learning models.
It's also not enough for schools to be connected, they must have connectivity that’s meaningful. The Connecting Learning Spaces: Possibilities for Hybrid Learning report from the ITU- and UNESCO-led Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development highlights the importance of meaningful connectivity for schools, enabling larger numbers of students to learn online, using multiple devices and a wider range of applications, but it also presents more opportunities for experiential (located, remote, and problem- and project-based) learning in the field, and on the job. Setting targets for a minimum bandwidth for schools can help to ensure that connectivity is sufficient, core functionalities can be conducted and costing is realistic and transparent.
Then there are also the macro-economic benefits of connecting schools with meaningful connectivity. Research from the Economist Intelligence Unit study commissioned by Ericsson concludes that a GDP increase would follow if better school connectivity was introduced to countries that are today equipped with below average connectivity. The same research also points to the critical role of policies and programs that promote social digital inclusion and the integration of technology in education. Simply put, connecting schools can generate substantial and far-reaching value across all sectors of society.
Over the first two years of our partnership with Giga, we've been working to understand the magnitude of the problem. Here are our three key takeaways:
1. Strong public-private partnerships are essential to solve the connectivity crisis
Two years ago, Ericsson broke new ground to become the first private sector partner to make a multimillion-dollar commitment and significant in-kind contribution to support the joint UNICEF-ITU Giga initiative. By embarking on that journey, we committed to our belief, based on decades of experience of public-private partnerships, that successful partnerships cannot be built on financial backing alone. Rather, when you add the other key ingredients such as our technology leadership and unique industry insights we can help to drive change more efficiently together with our partners.
By deploying technology for good, collaborating, co-creating and innovating in new ways we have demonstrated that working together, public and private actors can enact real change in the world. To scale the impact and potential of Giga, we call on other leaders in the private space to embark on that journey too.
In addition to its multimillion-dollar commitment to Giga, Ericsson also contributes in-kind by deploying the expertise of data scientists from its leading Global AI Accelerator hub to work alongside Giga data scientists. We have further been able to count on the engagement of hundreds of Ericsson volunteers and a dedicated team of ‘change makers’ who have provided their skills and expertise and Ericsson’s deep industry insights and technology to solve complex issues and support Giga’s vital work.
2. Technical expertise and innovation is key to understanding the scale of the problem
You can't solve a problem until you fully understand it. Identifying the underlying barriers to connectivity is the vital first step. And for Giga this means mapping school locations as well as connectivity and coverage levels - where are the schools, how well are they covered by existing networks (if at all), and are they even connected? If they are, is the connectivity meaningful? And if they aren't connected, what are the barriers?
Today, thanks to the financial contribution and the expertise of our data scientists, we have helped Giga to lay a foundation that has contributed to connecting more than two million children and students worldwide and can potentially help to connect millions more.
As a springboard to creating those connections, mapping the availability of internet connectivity across the world’s schools has become a vital tool that makes it possible for Giga to identify gaps, and prioritize resources and actions accordingly.
We have achieved this through novel methodologies and data pipelines developed by our data scientists that today have helped Giga to map the mobile network coverage of 466,371 unique school locations across 34 countries. In doing so, in many cases for the first time, we are shining a light on the unconnected and allowing them to be seen.
The engagement and commitment of our wider employee base has also been a key part of that process. To support Giga in the development of its mapping solutions, we have called on the services of all our employees worldwide to help tag school locations from satellite images. The results help Giga to train vital machine learning algorithms that can support in automating the process of identifying school locations based on satellite images. In total, our employees were able to contribute with a massive 150,538 individual validations of 1,500 images of schools across South Africa, Costa Rica, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Brazil.
3. We need more than just connectivity, we need meaningful connectivity
Quality and speed of connectivity also plays a crucial role in ensuring that meaningful use cases can be delivered. Giga has identified 20 Mbps as the minimum standard for schools to support meaningful educational use cases such as working online, watching online videos, supporting several video-streams per school, and enabling access to cloud-based a pps, that follows the recommendation in the Broadband Commission’s Connected Learning Spaces: Possibilities for Hybrid Learning report published last year.
To assess and monitor connectivity performance in schools, Ericsson’s developers have worked hand in hand with the Giga team to co-create a unique application that is being deployed today to monitor and assess school connectivity daily. The application feeds schools’ data speeds to UNICEF servers, allowing Giga and the schools to monitor their quality of service, analyze potential improvements and create accountability for service providers.
Through innovation, impactful partnerships, and a will to bring positive change in the world. I believe this blueprint is the one of the solutions to solve the school connectivity challenge and afford hundreds of millions of children the opportunities to a better future.
While private and public actors have together made some progress this past year in connecting the unconnected, and can be proud of that fact, it is clear that there still remains much ground to cover to connect the remaining third of the world’s population.
As the world turns into a new digital age, we must never stop working to connect the unconnected and ensure equal access for all to digital tools and services, and those opportunities they provide. In pursuit of that goal, we must leave no country, city, town, village, school, or child behind.
Ericsson is one of the leading providers of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to service providers. We enable the full value of connectivity by creating game-changing technology and services that are easy to use, adopt, and scale, making our customers successful in a fully connected world.
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