High data costs leave over 2bn people offline

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Failure to prioritise needed broadband policy reforms has left billions of people offline, says A4AI.
Failure to prioritise needed broadband policy reforms has left billions of people offline, says A4AI.

More than 2.3 billion people across the globe live in countries where just 1GB of mobile data is not affordable.

This is according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative to make the Internet more affordable to people around the world.

The World Wide Web Foundation serves as the secretariat of A4AI and major members of the coalition include Google, USAID, Facebook, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, UN Women and many others from the public, private and civil society sectors.

A4AI was created with the goal of obtaining global broadband Internet access priced at less than 5% of average per capita income globally; the target of the UN Broadband Commission.

It cites the lack of investment in infrastructure, competition in the market and inefficient taxation, among other policy and regulatory obstacles, as being major constraints to reducing prices.

Out of reach

The 2018 Affordability Report warns this high cost to connect is keeping billions offline and pushing the global goal of universal Internet access further out of reach.

The report assesses the policy frameworks designed to advance affordable Internet access across 61 low- and middle-income countries and finds that over 60% of countries have unaffordable Internet.

Of the 61 countries studied, just 24 had affordable Internet, where 1GB of mobile data costs less than 2% of average income.

Across the countries analysed, just 1GB of data costs over 5% of average monthly income; this price skyrockets to around and upwards of 20% of average income in a handful of countries.

For SA, A4AI says 1GB of data costs 2.5% of the average monthly income. The Competition Commission in SA last week held public hearings to look into the state of competition in the data services sector, after mounting pressure from consumers to have data prices fall.

The market inquiry was conducted in response to a request from economic development minister Ebrahim Patel, whose concerns relate to high data costs in SA and the importance of data affordability for the South African economy and consumers.

In its report, A4AI says growth in people using the Internet has slowed. The UN originally estimated we would achieve 50% global Internet penetration by the end of 2017; a downturn in the growth of Internet access and use means that we now don't expect to reach that milestone until mid-2019, it notes.

It adds that the pace of policy change to drive Internet prices down marked its slowest improvement to date.

According to A4AI, measures of the policy frameworks in place to enable greater affordability increased by just 1% on last year, despite growing recognition of the critical relationship between online access and economic growth.

Lost opportunity

Commenting on the report findings, A4AI executive director Sonia Jorge says: "While we have seen a few bright spots of the policy leadership needed to advance affordable Internet access, we are deeply concerned to see that policy progress has largely stagnated. Failure to prioritise needed broadband policy reforms has left billions of people offline, and has contributed to a significant slowing in the rate of people coming online.

"Every moment that these billions are unable to participate in digital development is a lost opportunity for economic, social and political growth. Policymakers, the private sector and civil society must come together to take immediate action to develop and implement the policies needed to connect everyone and accelerate Internet growth."

The report finds that policies to expand infrastructure to underserved locations and populations have particularly faltered, resulting in stubbornly high costs for Internet providers and consumers alike.

Recommendations call on policymakers to prioritise the time and resources needed to support the development of infrastructure critical to reducing Internet costs.

"Internet access is a critical driver of economic growth. Good, stable infrastructure is, quite literally, the backbone of internet access," says Dr Omobola Johnson, honorary chairperson of A4AI.

"As it is today, many of the policies in place conspire to make the building and upkeep of Internet infrastructure more difficult and expensive than it should be. Policymakers must focus on implementing policy frameworks that work to support the smart, coordinated development of infrastructure needed to ensure high-quality, affordable connectivity for all people; no matter whether they are in the city, a rural village, or a remote island community."

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