Bridging the Digital Divide: Connecting the Unconnected 2021

November 19, 2021 by ekurzawa
Filed in: Virtual & Hybrid Event Case Studies Tag: Case Studies

Internet connectivity is a challenge affecting the lives of four billion people around the world. The Connecting the Unconnected Summit 2021 (CTU 2021) brought together regulators, multinational companies, start-ups, standards-setting bodies, and non-profits from 3-5 November to address Internet connectivity and the digital divide. CTU 2021’s powerful speakers, thought-provoking program, and innovative virtual approaches made this an impactful event.

CTU 2021 was organized by the IEEE Future Networks Initiative and other partners. The organizing committee, led by co-chairs Ashutosh Dutta and Sudhir Dixit, partnered with the MCE Digital Events Team to envision and design an event that would encourage dynamic discussions and generate constructive solutions. 

“Nearly 50% of the world’s population are not yet connected to the Internet. The Digital Divide is closing too slowly and it is unevenly impactful on women and people living below the poverty line, whether in remote or urban areas,” said Sudhir Dixit, co-chair, IEEE Connecting the Unconnected Challenge and Summit and co-founder of the Basic Internet Foundation. “IEEE wanted to do more to help close this gap.”

A first-time event can be very challenging. The organizing committee and the Digital Events Team worked together to innovate a robust program and delivery which featured four keynotes, six invited talks, six panels, and various presentations and discussion sessions. To enhance accessibility for participants, the organizers offered both live event transcription and closed captioning.

The theme of the 2021 program was “Innovation for sustainable and inclusive connectivity.” The event also targeted critical subthemes for addressing digital disparity including infrastructure/access​, business model/affordability, community enablement, inclusion, standards, and policy/regulatory issues. 

CTU 2021 was well attended by 550 participants from 70 countries. The compelling program attracted 260 first-time IEEE event participants. Participants spent over 800 hours viewing event content. To enable participants to view content at their own pace, sessions were also available on-demand after the event. 

Keynotes and invited speakers from top companies shared thought leadership on closing the digital gap. Participants had the opportunity to hear from passionate speakers from Microsoft,  Intelsat, Facebook Connectivity, and Reliance Jio on the power of connectivity to provide life-changing health, educational, and economic opportunities. Fatema Kothari, Director, Microsoft Airband Initiative discussed a human-centered approach to achieving digital equity.  Alex-Handrah Aime, Director, Network Investments – Emerging Markets at Facebook, discussed lessons for accelerating connectivity from partnership and business models in emerging markets. 

During panel sessions, experts discussed how connectivity is influenced by infrastructure, applications, and services. Panelists also looked ahead to future business models and discussed how connectivity enables communities. Policies and standards as drivers and barriers to change for connectivity were also addressed.

The IEEE Connecting the Unconnected Challenge invited solutions from start-ups, grassroots organizations, university projects, and others working to bridge the digital divide in innovative ways. Competitors could submit solutions in two tracks, each with three categories. Areas of focus included technology applications, business models, or innovations that address community enablement. The challenge attracted 257 submissions from 69 countries.

CTU Challenge winners wowed the audience with their inventive technical concepts and proof of concepts. Winning projects showcased innovations like an open-source, portable, and offline-first wireless mesh network and a crowdsourced reporting platform for connectivity. During individual breakout sessions, event participants chatted with awardees about their work and discussed future collaborations. Winners from each award category have been assigned mentors who can advise them and guide them through in the future.

The CTU 2021 event featured ten sponsors including three award sponsors. To facilitate meaningful sponsor-participant engagement, CTU 2021 offered a virtual event bag containing resources contributed by sponsors such as leading-edge white papers. Participants could also discuss research and initiatives with sponsors in the exhibit hall. 

Positive feedback poured in from participants both during and after the event. From engaging discussions to inspired solutions, participants had lots of positive comments to share about CTU 2021: 

CTU 2021 Testimonials
  • “It is such an interesting discussion. We are all passionate about a people-centered connectivity approach.” 
  • “I just want to say thank you to you and your team for such a wonderful program in bringing together different ideas, people & projects! This program was amazing!”
  • “I followed the summit very closely this week and I am extremely impressed by the quality of the material presented. There are some very interesting ideas that may help our provincial government explore solutions for our own connectivity programs.”

CTU 2021 sparked ideas and collaborations that have the potential to improve the quality of life for the unconnected. Co-Chair Ashutosh Dutta shared, “CTU 2021 exceeded our expectations in facilitating dialogues and solutions for realizing a future where everyone is afforded the basic right of Internet connectivity.” 

Registration for CTU 2021 will remain open until 1 January 2022. Participants can view content on-demand through that date. The CTU Summit will continue in 2022, so stay tuned for additional announcements coming soon.

Learn more about CTU 2021