On 23 September 2018 more than 60 people from various United Nations (UN) agencies, governments and the broadband industry gathered in New York at the annual meeting of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. One of the key discussions was how broadband technology can be use to connect the approximately 3,8 billion people around the world who still do not have Internet access.

The gathering happened parallel to the 73rd Session of the General Assembly of the UN which also took place in New York.

“We are preparing to mark a new milestone where half of the world's people are accessing the Internet. While this growth is not spread evenly across the world's regions, it is nonetheless an encouraging development. With more people online, we need to think through how everyone can access the digital content safely and fairly. To take full advantage of the latest technological innovations, we have to adapt rapidly, including more innovative approaches to policy and regulation. The best way to handle this is through close collaboration among the key stakeholders, from government, the private sector, and the research community," said Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, and Co-Chair of the Broadband Commission.

Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development Meeting September 2018. ITU/Flickr

All things digital

Apart from the stakeholders present at the meeting agreeing that connecting the other half is important, three Working Groups of the Broadband Commission presented reports at the meeting. The reports were:

  • Digital Entrepreneurship, which looked at the challenges and opportunities for using digital entrepreneurship to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

  • The Promise of Digital Health: Addressing Noncommunicable Diseases to Accelerate Universal Health Coverage in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, providing practical recommendations and best practice examples for how policy-makers can use readily available digital technologies to address noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart and lung disease, cancer and diabetes. According to the World Health Organization, NCDs killed 41 million people in 2016, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

  • Preventing the Spread of Epidemics using ICT, practical recommendations and best practice examples for how policy-makers can use readily available and innovative ICTs to prevent the spread of epidemics such as SARS, MERS and Ebola.

A quick glance at the reports and the talk of "connecting the next 4 billion"suggests these topics are not new. Which then begs the question, was this just another talk shop or will any of the recommendations that come from the discussions be implemented?

Connecting the other half

Talks about connecting people in the world who do not yet have Internet access are not new. Just earlier this year, Nigeria's Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, met with Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, to talk about connecting "the next billion." Subsequent to that, Google launched a free Wi-Fi project initiative in Nigeria as part of their global Google Station project. Facebook is another company that has looked to provide high-speed Internet to Afrikans through various methods.

However, what is usually missing, especially across Afrika, from the discussions around providing high speed Internet access for those who are yet to experience its benefits, is the involvement of governments and policy makers and influencers. The discussions and projects, as per examples above, are typically driven by private businesses who only rope in governments, if ever, at an advanced stage.

Why is the involvement of governments in provisioning Internet you may ask. Well, it is not just about the Internet connection, in the age we live in, it has become about harvesting data. As an example, during April 2018, it was revealed that Facebook was collecting the personal information of Kenyans who use its more than 1,000 Express Wi-Fi hotspots across the country. Facebook confirmed it is collecting extra  personal information in Kenya for both Facebook and non-Facebook users, from access points for the Express WiFi service. Unfortunately, with Kenya not having finalized its data protection legislation and the hotspots being run by Facebook in partnership with other private companies, there is very little that citizens can do to prevent the data collection and they find themselves between "a rock and a hard place" as the offering of partially free Internet access, especially for low income communities, is something that is very difficult to turn down even if it comes with personal data harvesting.

This is why it is, however much it may seem like just a talk shop, encouraging to see policy makers and government representatives taking the initiative through the UN (ITU) Broadband C omission to put plans in motion on how the next 4 billion can be connected to the Internet. This way, I hope, the plans will take citizen's rights into consideration.


Cover image credit: Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development Meeting September 2018. ITU/Flickr