Outdated Policies And Poor Planning Are Entrenching The Digital Divide In The Developing World

Governments in a number of developing countries are failing to take the action needed to provide affordable internet access to their citizens, according to the 2017 edition the annual Affordability Report released by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).

The report highlights the continued failure to prioritise needed policy reforms — including public access solutions vital to connecting women and the poor — as the key causes that have further entrenched the digital divide and widened global inequality online.

A4AI is a global coalition working to reduce internet prices and expand access in developing countries. The Affordability Report looks at what is being done to overcome the key barriers to affordable internet access, tracking policy progress toward affordable internet across 58 low- and middle-income countries.

Based on original research across 58 low- and middle-income countries, the report finds that:  

  • Just 19 countries surveyed have "affordable" internet access, where 1GB of data costs no more than 2% of income; 
  • Policies have barely changed since research started in 2014;
  • Nearly half the countries surveyed have badly outdated or non-existent plans to guide broadband development 
  • Public funds such as the Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) to expand access to the disconnected – if they exist – are sitting dormant in over a third of countries 

Africa is the largest region analysed in this year's report, representing 27 of the 58 countries surveyed for the report. At position 8 out of 58, Mauritius is the highest-ranking country on the report's Affordability Drivers Index, which ranks countries on the policy frameworks they have put in place to drive down prices and enable affordable access. 

Despite prices dropping sharply over the past few years, data remains prohibitively expensive, with 1GB of prepaid mobile data costing nearly 18% of the average monthly income in several countries.

Another key finding is that countries are not prioritising public access solutions, which are far more likely to get people online than zero-rating and other mobile operator-led initiatives. Schemes to provide free or subsidised internet access in public places are critical to enabling connectivity for those that cannot afford to pay for data, yet effective and funded schemes exist in only half the countries surveyed.

A4AI’s experts have been tracking and rating policies in five key areas across developing and emerging countries since 2014. Overall, the average increase in policy scores across all areas was only 10%, indicating the slow pace of policy and regulatory progress.

Public access — or the offering of free, lower-cost, or subsidised internet access in public places — offers an untapped opportunity to connect those that cannot pay for regular internet use, even once prices have dropped to a more affordable level. Sonia Jorge, A4AI Executive Director

Public funds to expand access are underutilised — where they exist. Universal Service and Access Funds — designed to extend connectivity to those who cannot afford access or who live in areas without needed infrastructure — either don’t exist or are dormant — in over a third of countries.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Omobola Johnson, Honorary Chair of A4AI, and immediate former communications minister of Nigeria, spoke on the need to formulate and apply policies in order to boost access.

"Basic policy reforms", he noted, "have the power to reduce prices and unlock access for all. We urge policymakers to recognise the power of the internet to fuel development, and to prioritise, among other things, the creation of time-bound and targeted broadband plans, policies to promote healthy competition, and frameworks to encourage resource and infrastructure sharing among telecoms operators."

Though the global community committed to achieving affordable, universal internet access by the year 2020, policymakers worldwide are failing to turn their words into action. The billions still offline today — mostly women in developing countries — arguably stand the most to gain from an internet connection, yet inability to access an affordable connection risks contributing to their further marginalisation in society as the digital revolution steams ahead. Omobola Johnson, Honorary Chair of A4AI

The report does highlight some bright spots of progress that other countries can learn from: Latin American countries rank among the highest in the report’s Affordability Drivers Index, which assesses how likely countries are to be able to drive prices down based on an in-depth analysis of the affordability policy and regulatory environments they have in place.

"While we are disappointed by the extremely slow policy progress we’ve seen over this past year", A4AI Executive Director Sonia Jorge added, "we are heartened by the emergence of new public access solutions to connectivity challenges."

"New programmes in a number of countries, including Colombia, Costa Rica and Botswana, offer promising approaches to connecting those at the base of the pyramid", Jorge said further. "Public access has the potential to make a big dent in internet access and use levels, and requires leadership and focus from policymakers as they seek to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals."

The 2017 edition of the Affordability Report is available here, along with all supporting data and an interactive data explorer.

Cover Image via the Alliance for Affordable Internet

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