Costs obstruct global internet access goals

Nairobi internet- MAIN
Nairobians using the internet on their smart phones as they ride on a city bus. Kenya's biggest telecoms company, Safaricom, has begun installing wifi in the buses. Copyright: Panos

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  • Half of the world expected to have internet access by 2019 – two years past a global target
  • Policy development to create affordable access is at slowest rate in five years
  • Funds providing infrastructure to underserved groups must become more effective

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[WASHINGTON DC] People in low- and middle-income countries are gaining access to the internet more slowly because progress has stagnated on policies to make going online more affordable.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), a not-for-profit organisation based in Washington DC in the United States, had previously forecast that half of the world’s population would be online by now. But its 2018 Affordability Report, issued on 22 October, estimates the milestone would not be reached until mid-2019.

Sonia Jorge, A4AI’s executive director, stressed the human impact of the delay. “People that don’t have access to the internet can’t wait to have it,” she said.

The importance of internet access is enshrined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which urge universal internet access by 2020. In January this year, the UN said that all 47 least developed countries were on track to deploy 3G mobile networks covering over 60% of their population by that time.

“It is unlikely that there will be any significant change or movement in internet adoption by most of the countries surveyed in order to meet the 2020 goals.”

Michele Marius

However, more two billion people live in countries where 1GB of mobile data is unaffordable to those on average salaries. In many low- and middle-income countries 1GB of data costs more than 5 per cent of monthly income, the report warned, with A4AI defining affordability as 2 per cent or less.

A4AI’s report scored national policies on their effectiveness in creating affordable internet access and found that progress on this is slowing. Policy scores increased by just 1 per cent since last year, which is the slowest annual improvement in the five years of A4AI’s coverage.

A4AI offers guiding principles for national internet frameworks. For example, encouraging internet service providers to share infrastructure can reduce overhead costs by up to 45 per cent, the report says.

Jorge compared countries without national guidelines to a disorganised circus. “Sometimes the acts come together and they work very well, at other times they don’t,” she explained.

One important part of A4AI’s policy advice is the creation of Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs), which help pay for internet supply to underserved areas and groups. However, some private sector organisations that are required to contribute to USAFs resist doing so, the report said, because the funds have had mixed success.

“USAFs have in some cases been quite ineffective,” Jorge admitted. “Quite a lot of resources have been abused.”

Michele Marius, director of Jamaica-based information and communication technology and telecommunications advisors ICT Pulse. called slowing rates of internet access “quite worrying”.

“It is unlikely that there will be any significant change or movement in internet adoption by most of the countries surveyed in order to meet the 2020 goals,” Marius observed.

Like the report, Marius stressed the need for regulators to address financial losses that telecom companies typically incur in delivering services to poor areas. She added that natural disasters, like floods, boost the cost of internet access in Small Islands Developing States.
The barriers faced by these companies include the need to comply with standards, such as the GSM/3GPP wireless communication standard, and high taxes and fees.

“Until these burdens are reduced and governments provide the right type of support to areas where markets are too small, isolated and in very low income areas, the problem will persist,” said Mike Jensen, internet access specialist at the Association for Progressive Communications, an A4AI member organisation.

This urgency is compounded by the fact that more and more government services are moving online, which could shut groups without internet access out from political activities and representation. “We have the responsibility to ensure that those that are marginalised in societies are not further excluded because of this situation,” said Jorge.