Last year, the United Nations set a goal for the implementation of universal and affordable internet access across the world’s least developed countries by 2020. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) – an international coalition led by the World Wide Web Foundation – has since demonstrated that we’re set to miss this target by literally decades.
“Our research has shown that, at current growth rates, the world will miss this target by a mile, achieving universal access only in 2042 — 22 years after the target date,” says Sonia Jorge, executive director at A4AI.
Which begs the question: when are governments globally going to get serious about making the internet widely accessible to everyone, unlocking the virtually limitless access to information, and ability to learn and influence that Web access can provide?
In the eyes of many, internet access is fast becoming a basic human right. “The Web has become an indispensable tool to modern life,” Jorge stresses, “giving voice to billions and enabling ordinary people to speak truth to power.
“As Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said, the Web today is ‘a public resource on which people, businesses, communities and governments depend. It is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium.’
“Government censorship and surveillance threaten the power of the Web to give voice and opportunities to citizens, and particularly to those communities that have been marginalised. As we work to bring more people online, it is critical that we continue to work to ensure that the Web new users access when they come online is a free and open platform on which basic human rights — including the right to privacy and freedom of expression — are respected.”
This isn’t even an issue localised to impoverished countries. Telecoms.com recently reported that 57 per cent of the global urban population still aren’t online in any way, shape or form. Some may palm off this issue as a ‘first-world problem’, but you’d be naïve to dismiss the plethora of benefits internet access brings in a world that grows evermore connected by the day.
The World Wide Web Foundation, established in 2009 by Tim Berners-Lee himself, works to advance the perception of open Web as a public good and basic right. The A4AI coalition specifically focuses on reducing the cost of broadband and enabling affordable online access for everyone, everywhere.
One of A4AI’s core focuses is promoting affordable access for women and the poor, who make up a disproportionately large segment of today’s offline population. As such, A4AI recognises that efforts to expand connectivity must focus particularly on how access can be made accessible and affordable to those particular groups. Convincing governments to stop taxing ICT as a luxury good (“most countries view ICT taxes as an easy way to bolster short-term revenues,” says Jorge), and encouraging an integrated approach towards policymaking that accounts for supply, demand, regulation, competition, income and many other factors, also falls under A4AI’s remit.
“The vast majority of the world’s unconnected population is concentrated in the world’s poorest countries. Nine out of 10 of those offline live in the world’s 48 least developed countries, and most of those without access are women,” says Jorge. “A4AI works with countries where policy change has the potential to lead to significant change, and where governments are willing to work with other stakeholders in the country to adopt the changes necessary to bring prices down.
“We encourage policymakers globally to focus on developing solutions aimed particularly at those populations hardest hit by the high cost to connect — women, the poor, and those living in rural areas.”
Despite the world’s current failure to aspire to the current targets set by the UN, A4AI is calling for a far more ambitious set of goals to be recognised by public and private sectors alike internationally: “we would like to see the global community adopt and work toward a new, more ambitious ‘1 for 2’ affordability target, with 1GB of mobile broadband data priced at two per cent or less of gross national income per capita.
“This will enable basic broadband to become truly affordable for all income groups, including the bottom 20 per cent. We’ll also ensure that ICT and other policies are made gender-responsive. Developing and implementing the policies needed to achieve this target will ensure that billions of those currently offline will be able to afford access and will help to accelerate growth toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”
“We’re looking forward to sharing our experiences working on global access initiatives, and to learning from the experiences of others working to make universal, affordable access a reality,” says Jorge.
“We expect to see participants make concrete commitments toward advancing connectivity and achieving the SDGs. Specifically we hope to hear more about investments in ICT that consider both supply and demand and aim to close the digital divide, with a particular focus on solutions to enable access for women and those living in poverty.”
Broadband World Forum 2016 takes place 18-20 October 2016 at the ExCel Convention Centre in London.