The danger of ‘digital apartheid’

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I recently bought an Apple Watch SE—the edition co-branded with Nike, in case you were wondering—as a 30th birthday gift to myself. (Thank you, dear readers, for your input; I ultimately chose the cheaper option.)

While setting up the watch this weekend, I was startled to discover an impediment. To enable cellular service, a feature for which I paid extra, one must first establish a connection to one’s carrier network through an existing phone plan. I attempted to connect the accessory through my work iPhone only to discover that the watch cannot be set up using a business account. Oy vey.

Perhaps I should have investigated this issue sooner…

That was frustrating (as was learning that my preferred app for library loans is incompatible). But these are minor irritations compared to the connectivity issues facing much of the world. I was reminded of this during our virtual Fortune Global Forum event on Monday, where I moderated two sessions on Internet access.

My panelists put things into perspective for me. Here’s a smattering of what they said.

On a year of reckoning in the U.S.: “In the last six months, we’ve learned about the many gaps we have in our country, whether it’s the digital divide or systemic racism.” —Enrique Lores, CEO, HP

On the significance of Internet access: “Not only do we already have a digital divide, but we also can see through the pandemic how critical access to technology is for so many people around the world to stay connected from online learning health to health and wellness.” —Suzanne Fallender, head of corporate responsibility, Intel

On the pandemic’s impact: “The new reality is that COVID has accelerated and increased the digital divide. We are in a new kind of apartheid, a digital apartheid. It’s more than a divide. People are excluded and don’t have access in Brazil, in Latin America, in Africa.” —Rodrigo Baggio, president, Recode

On cultural gender differences: “There are concerns around safety and online harassment that will lead some families to not want to give their girls access to smartphone devices for school and for remote learning. There are stereotypes that technology is for boys. Social norms keep girls away. They don’t see STEM role models in many of these places around the world. That widens the sense of digital divide.” —Suzanne Ehlers, CEO, Malala Fund

On corporate initiatives: “We’re trying to reach 500 million people in the next four years…. We’re trying to concentrate on making digital technologies affordable in developing areas, creating digital ecosystems, helping developers and working with local governments and communities to improve their digital skill sets.” —Andy Purdy, chief security officer, Huawei Technologies USA

On wiring up Africa: “We’re making the best out of a bad situation. Let me give you an example. We have countries that have never been connected before. We completed South Sudan about four months ago. The biggest barrier was the landmines that were there on the border with Uganda.” —Sam Nkusi, CEO, One Africa Network and Liquid Telecom

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, Beth Ford, CEO of the farmer cooperative Land O’ Lakes, has advocated more vocally for broadband access in rural America than perhaps any other executive in corporate America. She put it best: “We’re sitting here saying, Our cell phones aren’t working, I’m untethered. But there is very basic wiring that is missing in these communities.”

My Apple Watch snag is nothing compared to the disadvantages so many people face merely because of geography.


Another episode of Fortune’s Reinvent podcast is out featuring John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft. COVID-19 dealt the ride-hailing company (and Uber arch-nemesis) a punishing blow. At the pandemic’s peak, rides were down as much as 75%, and Lyft was forced to lay off 17% of its workforce. Yet Zimmer remains positive about the future and his vision of “transportation as a service.”

Hosts Adam Lashinsky and Beth Kowitt discuss the challenges ahead for Lyft, including efforts at diversifying revenue streams, and California’s Prop 22 ballot initiative. Listen to the episode here.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

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