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The Disadvantages of Digital Inclusion and the Perils of Non-Universal Access

I’ve been wanting to write about this for quite some time. Many of us are familiar with network effects within telecommunications. Fundamentally, the notion is that as the number of participants in a network increases, the value of that network increases superlinearly. Though many different theories exist about how best to value these networks, the general idea is that the more people on a network, the more benefits accrue to everyone on the network:

Network Values as per various “Laws”. This shows growth from 1 to 5 members. We can see that Reed’s law is the fastest growth, followed by Metcalfe’s Law, then Odlyzko’s, then Sarnoff’s. Showing larger networks on the same scale becomes difficult due to the exponential growth of Reed’s Law network values. It is important to note all Law formulations show increasing value.
Source: Turning Metcalfe on His Head: the Multiple Costs of Network Exclusion by Rahul Tongia & Ernest J. Wilson

The flip side of this is that as the number of participants on a network approaches 100% of the population, the disadvantage faced by those still excluded from access also grows superlinearly. Rahul Tongia and Ernest Wilson’s research Turning Metcalfe on His Head: The Multiple Costs of Network Exclusion [PDF] brings this issue into sharp focus:

For those of us working on digital inclusion strategies, it’s a sobering reminder that we cannot cease our efforts until everyone has access to broadband services. And also that the last constituencies left unconnected will be the ones who face the greatest disadvantages.

By Sascha Meinrath, Director at X-Lab

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