$428bn investment needed to connect all of humanity

To achieve universal access to broadband connectivity for the remaining three billion people, aged 10 years and above, in the next 10 years, is estimated to cost $428 billion (R7.1 trillion).

This is based on new data released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which looks into the investment needs to bring connectivity to the global population that still remains offline.

The study, “Connecting Humanity − Assessing investment needs of connecting humanity to the Internet by 2030”, examines the costs associated with infrastructure needs, enabling policy and regulatory frameworks, and basic digital skills and local content at both the global and regional levels.

Furthermore, the ITU study points out that broadband is defined as a 4G or equivalent connection (mobile and fixed broadband), and the target population as those aged 10 years and above.

With 10 years remaining to meet the Connect 2030 Agenda, the study highlights that unprecedented levels of financing is needed to extend networks to under-served communities.

In addition, it says the coronavirus pandemic has pushed so many essential services online, heightening the danger of those without broadband access being left ever further behind.

"Meeting the investment necessary to bring every person online by the end of this decade will require an unprecedented and concerted effort from the public and private sectors," states ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao. "The new Connecting Humanity study led by ITU is the much-needed roadmap that will guide decision-makers on the journey towards accessible, affordable, reliable and safe digital technologies and services for all."

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau, adds: "While this is an ambitious aim, it is in no way an unachievable one. It is my hope that, as part of ITU's Connect 2030 Agenda efforts, this major new ITU assessment will provide clear, coherent evidence-based guidance for countries that will help accelerate efforts to reach unconnected communities, so that equality of opportunity is finally within reach of all."

In terms of the investment needs, the study shows that deploying new infrastructure and upgrading the existing one will be necessary to guarantee a 4G-equivalent connection to everyone.

“While in some regions bridging the connectivity gap predominantly means upgrading existing coverage and capacity sites, nearly half of the required radio access network infrastructure investment in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia/Pacific will be greenfield.

“This increases the overall weight of investments in such regions to a large extent, especially given the fact that greenfield capital expenditure often demands equity premium. Moreover, considerably more capacity would be needed as technology evolves and demand grows, and this means existing infrastructure reach and capacity will constantly need to be expanded.”

Turning to affordability, digital skills and local content, it highlights that approximately 85% of the global population is already covered by global broadband networks, and around 70% of the global unconnected are within a 4G coverage area.

However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, around 80% of those covered by a 4G network are not connected because of lack of affordable access, limited relevant content and the skills to benefit from Internet access.

“Such realities disclose economic and social disparities which affect the rate of adoption, use and ultimately the opportunity to benefit from broadband access,” it states. “While only 15% of the global population might be in areas that are not covered by broadband, the reality is that the percentage of persons without meaningful connectivity is much higher, and for this reason it is also crucial to think beyond infrastructure.

“In order to build on and benefit from broadband infrastructure, it is therefore imperative to focus on and invest in complementary initiatives that will support billions to be connected. This requires a more holistic approach to broadband investment, one which encompasses innovative and collaborative policy and regulatory approaches, as well as strategies to stimulate demand for broadband services – increase and support device affordability; affordability of data and services; as well as digital skills programmes and content, with a special focus on closing the digital gender divide given that the majority of people offline today are women.”

According to the ITU, establishing an enabling policy and regulatory environment is essential to foster predictability and consequently attract long-term investment and support the digital economy, especially in low and lower and middle income countries. “Having innovative policy and regulatory frameworks is critical to achieving the 2030 targets.”

Overall, the ITU study concludes that no single actor alone can achieve the ambitious goal of connecting everyone to universal, affordable broadband connectivity by 2030.

Different stakeholders should come together to tackle the challenge, it states.

“The investment should take a regional approach – with a special focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – to bring the unconnected online in the next 10 years. While infrastructure investment is the main challenge, investing in policy and regulatory reform and digital skills and local content development are also critical.

“What is more, complementary efforts on improving affordability of data, devices and services will be key to helping close the global digital divide.”

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