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High Internet costs threaten universal access

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Research finds income inequality and gender discrimination mean access remains unaffordable for over 70% of people in least-developed countries.
Research finds income inequality and gender discrimination mean access remains unaffordable for over 70% of people in least-developed countries.

It will take 26 years to make universal Internet access a reality for all, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) 2015-16 Affordability Report.

The report, released today, shows least-developed countries (LDCs) will only achieve universal access in 2042, which is way past the deadline set by member states of the United Nations (UN).

In September 2015, 193 UN member states agreed on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to ensure universal and affordable Internet access across the world's LDCs by 2020.

If current trends continue, the world will miss the agreed target for universal Internet access by more than 20 years, says A4AI. "On current trends, the world's least developed countries will only achieve universal access in 2042, more than 20 years past the target date set by the global community."

The report adds: "Income inequality means nearly half a billion people, primarily women and the poor, remain priced out of the digital revolution."

Barriers to access

The annual report is produced by technology sector coalition, the A4AI. It comprises over 80 member organisations from across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in developed and developing nations, with the aim of driving down the cost of Internet access in LDCs.

The report examines the state of broadband affordability across 51 developing and emerging economies, with a focus on how policy and regulation are working to reduce prices and enable wider access. It also produces an Affordability Drivers Index, which assesses how likely countries are to be able to drive prices down fast.

Dhanaraj Thakur, senior research manager and one of the authors of the report, says affordability of Internet, the cost of devices, and the gender pay gap between men and women in LDCs are the primary barriers to universal access.

Dhanaraj Thakur, one of the authors of the Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015-16 Affordability Report.
Dhanaraj Thakur, one of the authors of the Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015-16 Affordability Report.

In terms of the UN, the threshold for affordable Internet access should be 5% or less than the monthly average income, which is suitable for an entry-level 500MB package.

However, in LDCs, the affordability threshold is triple the monthly average, at 15.5%. "The price of Internet in LDCs is still too expensive. Even for people in developing countries, 5% of their monthly income for Internet access still proves to be a high cost," says Thakur.

Only 25 of the 51 countries surveyed met the UN's current target for "affordable Internet", the report reads.

"Income inequality, gender discrimination, and poverty mean access remains unaffordable for over 70% of people in the world's least developed countries," the report explains.

Local ambitions

On the A4AI Affordability Drivers Index, SA is ranked 19 out of 51 nations. Thakur says there is room for the country to improve its ranking.

The cost of mobile broadband in SA costs 1.5% of the monthly average income, but because of the country's income inequality, this means broadband access cost remains high.

In SA, for example, the average income is $6 800, but 60% of the population actually earn less than half of that amount, says Thakur.

"In practice, this means a seemingly affordable mobile Internet connection (priced at 1.48% of average monthly income) actually costs the majority of South Africans anywhere between 7-19% of their income," Thakur states.

Meanwhile, the South African government is committed to the SA Connect national broadband plan; however, the project is yet to show any real signs of progress.

SA Connect, first announced in 2013, aims to deliver 100% broadband connectivity for all schools, health and government facilities by 2020.

The project is also promised to deliver widespread broadband access to 90% of the country's population by 2020, and 100% by 2030. SA Connect's first phase is set to connect 1 296 government facilities in the eight rural district municipalities to fast, secure and always-available Internet, which is scalable for future demand over three years, until 2017.

The Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), which has been tasked with ensuring the implementation of SA Connect, recently revealed it is yet to appoint a service provider for the first phase of the ambitious government broadband infrastructure project.

DTPS spokesperson Siya Qoza said the department is following due process to facilitate the rollout of broadband for phase one.

Access for all

According to Thakur, the affordability sweet spot is if broadband is priced at 2% or less of average monthly income.

"When a basic broadband package is priced at this level, access becomes affordable for all levels of income earners," he says.

The report proposes a new affordability target: 1GB of mobile broadband priced at 2% or less of average monthly income. "Driving prices down to the 2% average level will enable large swathes of the population currently priced out of access to get online, while increasing the data allowance to 1GB will allow users to make more meaningful use of the Internet."

Thakur also notes countries with national broadband plans need to develop strategies and policies that include both men and women to address the gender divide.

Bold steps are needed to accelerate connectivity among women, the poor, and other marginalised populations, states the report. "Overcoming the challenges to access posed by income and gender inequalities will require policies designed with these populations in mind."

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