Reaching digital deserts – extending access to broadband has never been so important

Connecting people across regions has never been more important. In 2020, global Internet traffic was estimated to be more than 3 zettabytes – the equivalent of 325 million households watching Netflix simultaneously, at all times. By 2022, these flows will be 1,000 times greater than in 2002, 20 years earlier. These data flows keep us informed, entertained and connected to work, friends, and family. They also provide increasingly important routes to access to key services – in retail, health and public support. Throughout the pandemic, these connections have been critical in keeping many jobs, sectors and services going. However, while urban communities flourish in the online world, too many rural areas remain digital deserts.

Digital deserts can be hidden from view

Many of these digital deserts remain hidden from the public eye due to poor data. That is changing. Private partners like Ookla® are now working with governments and the OECD to shed new light on the problem by collecting data from users directly. The data show that in EU and G-20 countries, fixed broadband download speeds in rural areas are close to 50% slower than those in cities.

Source: OECD calculations based on Speedtest® by Ookla® Global Fixed Network Performance Map data.

Investing in new connections…

Public policies are critical to closing connectivity divides. Governments across the world are using demand aggregation models to signal and coordinate demand, public-private partnerships to share risk between partners, subsidies for rural communities, and bottom-up initiatives such as open access or municipal-led networks, among other examples covered in our recent report.

That investment can make a real difference. An evaluation of the UK’s Superfast Broadband Programme – bringing broadband to areas with low population density – showed newfast connections created 17,000 jobs and boosted the annual turnover of local businesses by £1.9bn. There were also signals that improved broadband improved the efficiency of public services and the use of remote delivery modes, features that were particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the US, economists estimate that access to broadband saved households an average of $1,850 a year and that boosting connection speeds by 0.2MBPS improved housing values by around $661.

That investment would be timely. As the accelerated adoption of teleworking during the pandemic prompts many workers and businesses to reconsider their location decisions, new digital connections could play an important role in attracting skilled workers back to rural locations, helping revitalise communities and reverse population decline.

…and making the most of them

Yet even where the infrastructure is in place, take-up of internet technologies can be slow. Infrastructure policies need to be complemented by broader measures to tackle other barriers to engaging in online life, including finding ways to boost digital skills. In EU countries, rural areas have a lower share of individuals with at least basic digital skills than in cities. In some cases, the gap between the share of individuals with at least basic skills in cities and rural areas can reach 50 percentage points.

In some countries, digital skills development programmes are directed towards students, while others are directed towards employers. In Canada, the government has put into place a Digital Literacy Fund and a Digital Skills for Youth programme for students. In France, upskilling is personalised through individual training accounts (“compte personnel de formation”) that offer digital training. In other countries, the approach is focused on assessing the needs of employers. For example, in Scotland, Skills Development Scotland helps employers assess what resources may be used to help up-skill the workforce. In Australia, a rural and regional skills training initiative provides skills resources adapted to regional students and employers.

Our connections to the online world will increasingly shape our job prospects, social lives and access to core services. For the world’s digital deserts, these connections cannot come soon enough, along with the right support to make the most of them.


Czernich, N. et al. (2011), “Broadband Infrastructure and Economic Growth”, The Economic Journal, Vol. 121/552, pp. 505-532
Gallardo, R. et al. (2020), “Broadband metrics and job productivity: a look at county-level data”, The Annals of Regional Science, Vol. 66/1, pp. 161-184
OECD (2021), Bridging digital divides in G20 countries, OECD Publishing, Paris,
OECD (2021), Delivering Quality Education and Health Care to All: Preparing Regions for Demographic Change, OECD Rural Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris
OECD (2021), Implications of Remote Working Adoption on Place Based Policies: A Focus on G7 Countries, OECD Regional Development Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris

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Katherine is the Director of Ookla for Good, leading program initiatives in support of Ookla's mission to help make the internet better, faster and more accessible for everyone.

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Michelle Marshalian is an Economist at the Regional Development and Multi-level Governance division of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) where she manages the OECD project on Enhancing Innovation in Rural Regions. She uses microdata for firm and labour analysis and develops partnerships for access to timely, and granular resources to fill the gap of information in data poor regions. In addition, she manages an advisory committee on rural innovation consisting of academics and industry representatives. Michelle previously taught advanced econometrics and impact evaluation for public policy making at Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, worked for the World Bank conducting Jobs Diagnostic reviews, managed government relations at the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD and held research positions at other research institutes in the US, UK and France prior to joining the OECD.  She holds a PhD in Economics from Paris-Dauphine (France), a dual Masters from the London School of Economics and Sciences Po, Paris, and a dual Bachelors of Arts and Sciences in Economics and International Area studies from UCLA.

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Maria Paula Caldas is a Junior Policy Analyst at the Economic Analysis, Data and Statistics Division of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) where she supports the CFE Smart Data Strategy to develop new metrics and innovative digital tools to address emerging policy issues through timely and geographically granular empirical evidence. Prior to joining the OECD, Maria Paula worked as an economics consultant and data scientist with Deloitte France, working on cases in competition and regulation. She holds a Master’s degree in Economics from the Toulouse School of Economics (France).