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Half of the world is still offline. How do we connect them quickly?

I was in a café in London on my phone when I read the news. For the first time, more than half the world’s people were online. Yes, this 50/50 moment was a milestone to celebrate, but surrounded by people sipping coffee and browsing the web, it was hard to comprehend that for billions of people around the world, internet access remains a distant reality.

Internet access is still an unaffordable luxury for many. For others, service is inadequate or unreliable, and not worth the trouble or expense of connecting. Online abuse, violations of privacy, government surveillance, and other issues provide further challenges, keeping many offline. At the same time, a growing number of governments including Bangladesh, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo are shutting down or limiting access to the internet during contentious elections, or in the face of criticism from citizens.

The World Wide Web works best when it is truly worldwide, and offers everyone, everywhere a chance to connect, participate, and make their voice heard. But connecting the nearly 50% still offline won’t happen by itself. In fact, in the past ten years, we’ve seen a slowdown in the rate at which people are coming online. To reverse this trend and connect the unconnected — most of whom are women, poor or rural populations living in low- and middle-income countries — we need to see increased efforts to tackle these major obstacles.

This effort requires sustained commitment from companies, policymakers and civil society. Here at A4AI, we’re focused on what we see as one of the biggest obstacles to getting everyone online: affordability. Here are our top priorities for 2019:

Government commitment to policies that advance access and affordability. In 2018, governments saw average increases of just 1% in our Affordability Drivers Index, measuring policies that impact affordability — the slowest rate of improvement since we started tracking as part of our Affordability Report. Policy and regulations for national broadband, digital and ICT need to be updated to keep up with industry trends. And unless policy commitments are backed with resources, they will have little impact.

Greater commitment to infrastructure and access is needed to improve the quality of service and experience of consumers. Many governments, particularly in developing economies, need to focus on the fair pricing of spectrum, streamlining permitting processes and eliminating taxes that stifle investment. Industry practitioners frequently cite the high costs of civil works, accounting for 50-70% of ICT infrastructure costs in some markets. This could be improved with a sharp increase in infrastructure sharing, both within the ICT industry and with other sectors such as utilities, rail, roads and power. In addition, A4AI research shows that improved collaboration between countries, particularly landlocked and island nations, could also reduce connectivity costs for consumers.

Embrace new models of connectivity to reduce costs, particularly for middle and last mile connectivity. As the world gears up for 5G, will 2019 see more use of community networks and TV white spaces to provide broadband? Towards the end of 2018, there was an increased interest in Community networks such as Zenzeleni in South Africa and ASORCOM’s Siyin valley project in Myanmar. Guidelines for building these kinds of networks have been simplified by the Internet Society. Following several successful TV white spaces pilots, commercial rollouts are imminent. Regulators who support these new models could see a significant uptake in broadband.

Unlock unused Universal Access Service Funds (USAF) to develop public access innovations and digital skills for marginalised groups. Web Foundation research on these funds found that around US$408 million collected to expand internet access has been left unused by governments due to bureaucracy or limiting regulations. Governments must urgently update regulation or legislation to allow these funds to be released and used to provide access and skills training to some of those least likely to get online. There should also be greater transparency around the use and impact of these funds to ensure they are effectively used.

Actively seek and use gender-disaggregated data. Research shows the people most likely to be left out of the digital revolution are women. Without accurate gender-disaggregated data to guide policymakers, access and skills programmes targeted to women cannot be properly run. Regulators, network providers and researchers all have a role to play to improve this data collection.

Push back against internet taxes. In 2018 a number of governments pursued various forms of taxation on social media, digital business and data packages. Many were short-sighted strategies impacting consumer’s ability to access the web. While these taxes provide countries with increased tax revenue in the short term, they increase the cost to connect for all — particularly for those at the bottom of the income ladder already struggling to afford a basic connection. By adopting a consumer-centric approach to taxation and multistakeholder engagement backed by research, governments can realise opportunities presented by new digital models in the face of rapidly changing legacy and telecom market models.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals has set a target of universal internet access by 2020. This target will be missed. In fact, unless we take urgent action now, it’s unlikely we’ll get to universal access for decades. At A4AI we will continue to work for change in government and corporate policies to bring down the cost of access so that those not connected have the opportunity to get online as quickly as possible.

 

By: Eleanor Sarpong

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