Digital Connectivity in Emerging Europe: post-pandemic opportunities for acceleration.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 cast a shadow of uncertainty over many aspects of our lives. Will travel ever be the same? Will employees return to the office full time?

Will the local high street ever look the same? But with that, it also ushered in a handful of new certainties, perhaps most forcefully, the certainty that the world is now on a clear path towards increased digital connectivity.

The unanticipated migration towards life online sped up the adoption of digital technologies in every corner of the globe. Schooling became virtual, doctors started practicing telemedicine, and over 80% of customer interactions were completed online. A McKinsey report, published in the midst of the pandemic, concluded that the world had vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in only eight weeks.

As we enter cautiously into a phase of recovery from the pandemic, indications are that this increasingly ‘digitised’ way of living is here to stay. Robust digital infrastructure to enable digital connectivity has gone from a “nice to have” to a “must have” and will become a key marker for competitiveness. Businesses, consumers, and nations who are not able to keep up will undoubtedly be left behind.

Western Europe vs Emerging Europe

Before the pandemic, there was an obvious digital gap between Western and emerging Europe. In April 2016 the European Commission’s Digitising European Industry (DEI) initiative sought to address this, however, Central and Eastern European countries still had trouble leaving their mark. Out of 400 Digital Innovation Hubs in Europe, only 13% were in CEE. Businesses across emerging Europe, including in Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia, were also receiving significantly lower investments in digital technologies than their Western counterparts.

As we emerge from the global pandemic, we have an opportunity to close this gap. The EU is prioritising digitisation as part of its €750bn COVID-19 stimulus package, emerging Europe must do the same.

Of course, this won’t come cheap, but the private sector can be an essential partner in delivering the necessary infrastructure development, easing the burden of costs and supporting investment in new technologies and research, in ways that some governments may not be able to.

Post-Pandemic Opportunities

In 2018, NEQSOL Holding initiated the Digital Silk Way (DSW) – a private digital infrastructure project that is now being developed by Azertelecom, a NEQSOL Holding subsidiary. The DSW project will create the shortest, fastest, most advanced route for digital connectivity between Europe and Asia by 2025. It will enable improved internet access for 1.8 billion people and provide West-East connectivity at speeds 20-30ms faster than existing terrestrial routes. Post-pandemic, the aims of our project are more relevant than ever for accelerating digital connectivity in the region.

Another McKinsey-led report estimates that between January and May of 2020, the digital economy in emerging Europe increased by a staggering 14%. Clearly, the appetite for a more digital way of living in the region exists. Now it is incumbent on us to build the infrastructure that can leverage this interest and create the opportunities that will drive economic recovery: jobs, increased tax revenue and Foreign Direct Investment, access to new markets, and more.

Accelerating digital connectivity post-covid is not only an opportunity for emerging Europe to catch up, but it is potentially an opportunity to take over, and become a regional hub for digital development.

According to a recent report by Coursera, the top 3 countries with the highest skill proficiency in technology and data science out of Coursera’s 65 million learners from 60 countries were all Eastern European. All that’s missing now is the digital infrastructure. Projects like the Digital Silk Way will not only level the playing field, they will position emerging Europe as an essential player in the international digital future.

The future of the region lies in greater digital expansion, diversification and connectivity. It is clear high-quality infrastructure – both digital and human – will grant Eastern Europe and Central Asia greater economic opportunities and human prosperity. Yet, we cannot have a connected world without connected parts. The time is now for concerted efforts in addressing connectivity gaps in the region and ensuring we come out of this pandemic increasingly resilient and digitally apt.

Nasib Hasanov, Founder and Owner of NEQSOL Holding.

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