In developed and developing countries alike, modern communications technology is not just a convenience: it is a necessity. It is an indispensable part of modern life, used for a wealth of applications: sending quick messages via services like WhatsApp and Viber, accessing and sharing the latest world news, or obtaining valuable information, for example on the stock markets – vital for taking decisions on finance or the agricultural markets. The internet is not only a marketplace for goods and services; it also helps us to exercise our social, economic, civic and political rights, and to participate successfully in the changing world of work, whether by working from home, or by setting up and running a new business.
In a resolution adopted in 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council therefore declared internet access to be a human right. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015, also draw attention to the great importance of information and communications technology for realising the ambition of the 2030 Agenda to ‘leave no one behind’. Access to technology is addressed in Target 9c, for example, which states that the international community should ‘significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020’. That is only two years away.
But there are still wide disparities in access worldwide. While internet rollout in the developed world mainly relied on landlines and home computers, this ‘traditional’ pathway is being bypassed in many developing countries: here, mobile phones are the main driver of digitalisation.
It’s mainly young people who are online
Today, around half the world’s people have access to the internet. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, some seven billion people – 95 per cent of the world population – live in regions with mobile network coverage, with mobile broadband (at least third generation) now reaching roughly 84 per cent. Young people are at the forefront of internet use worldwide: around 70 per cent of them are online and they account for almost 25 per cent of internet users.
‘Digitalisation! A curse, a tantalising promise, and the only way to go. Today’s big issue.’
Sascha Lobo, author, blogger and strategic consultant
Mobile communications are a driver of digitalisation – and this is confirmed by the global association of mobile network operators, GSMA. It projects that around three quarters of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – will be using mobile services by 2020. According to GSMA, 55 per cent of connections ran on mobile broadband in 2016, and this is predicted to rise to almost 75 per cent by 2020.
Despite all the progress on internet access, there are striking disparities, which are linked to region, gender and income. So while mobile phone networks now span the globe – more or less – they reach only 67 per cent of the rural population, creating an urban-rural divide. What’s more, the majority of the 3.9 billion people who are still offline live in the ‘global South’. Two billion women still have no access to the internet. Nine out of ten young people without internet access live in Asia, Africa and the Pacific region.
Still unaffordable for many people
The Alliance for Affordable Internet, an international technology coalition of private sector, public sector and civil society organisations whose membership includes global corporations such as Google, Facebook, Cisco, Ericsson and Microsoft, is committed to cutting the costs of broadband. According to the Alliance, the world will miss the 2020 universal internet access target by 22 years. On current trends, only 16 per cent of the world’s least developed countries and 53 per cent of the world’s population will be connected by the target date. As the Alliance points out, this delay will have major adverse consequences for development progress, wasting opportunities for inclusive growth and denying ‘hundreds of millions of people online access to education, health services, a political voice and so much more’.
The gender gap in internet use – known as the digital gender divide – has also widened, from 11 per cent in 2013 to 12 per cent in 2016. In all regions of the world, more men than women use the internet, but the gap is largest in the least developed countries (31 per cent) and especially in Africa (23 per cent).
Wide gender gap
The wide gender gap affects access to mobile phones as well. In 2015, more than 1.7 billion women in low- and middle-income countries did not own mobile phones. Women on average are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, meaning that 200 million fewer women than men are phone owners. In nine cities in Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America, the World Wide Web Foundation has investigated the probability that an existing internet connection is being used to generate higher incomes or participate in public life. For women, the probability is 30 to 50 per cent lower than for men.
What prevents so many people, mainly women, from using the internet, despite its potential to radically improve their lives by helping them find a job, work online or make their voice heard, for example? The main obstacle is the high cost of devices and connections. The price of mobile phones has fallen, it is true, and smartphones are increasingly in use on every continent, but they often cost more than low earners can afford. Making matters worse, low earners end up paying a far higher proportion of their income for a simple broadband connection compared with someone on an average wage.
In South Africa, for example, the basic tariff for mobile internet access with 500 MB of data costs around 1.5 per cent of the average monthly income. In 2014, the average annual income in South Africa was USD 6,790. However, 60 per cent of the population earns less than half this amount. So a figure which, on the face of it, seems affordable actually costs the majority of South Africans between 6 and 19 per cent of their income. Added to this is the fact that women all over the world earn 30 to 50 per cent less than their male colleagues – meaning that even if an internet connection seems affordable, it is still out of reach for women and the poor. In Indonesia, by contrast, the 500 MB tariffs cost around 2.8 per cent of the average income of the poorest 20 per cent of the population, making them more accessible for low earners.
Phones cannot work without electricity
But other factors also come into play. According to Women’s Rights Online – a research and advocacy network coordinated by the World Wide Web Foundation – many women in poor urban communities are excluded because they lack basic internet skills. However, women’s confidence in their digital skills increases with education. Other reasons why women do not use the internet are lack of time and lack of relevant content, especially in local languages.
In addition to this, and issues about devices and tariffs, infrastructure also has a key role to play. Sometimes, telecoms companies decide that it is not worthwhile providing a regional infrastructure. Or perhaps the local power supply is unreliable, making phone charging a challenge. In many instances, these factors converge, generally in regions which are already marginalised. In such cases, there is very little incentive for people to go online and use the internet for their own purposes. Thus digital divides emerge between rich and poor, men and women. And if the poor and women are already marginalised, there is a risk that they will be excluded completely from the benefits of digitalisation and left even further behind.
Innovative ways to extend connectivity
Various stakeholders – governments, the private sector and non-governmental organisations – are now facing up to the challenge of providing access for these groups. This is creating a mishmash of laws, rules and practices. Many governments are developing or updating their national communications technology and broadband policies in order to move closer to the goal of universal internet access. In some countries, for example, governments are setting up state universal service funds, with mandatory contributions from internet service providers. The funds are used to subsidise access to these services for underprovisioned communities.
The private sector and non-governmental organisations, too, are finding innovative ways to extend connectivity to the disconnected. One of the most eye-catching is Project Loon, launched by Google’s parent company Alphabet and consisting of a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to extend internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide. Another is Facebook’s Aquila project: here, a fleet of solar-powered drones will remain airborne for up to 90 days at a time and provide broadband internet access at ground level within a radius of 100 kilometres of each drone.
At the local level, private initiatives such as BRCK in Kenya are working to solve the problem of frequent power outages. Here, the solution is based on a rugged microserver with battery backup for emergencies. In India, Gram Marg utilises unused TV frequencies to provide access for people in rural areas. And then there is Zenzeleni, a South African cooperative that provides power and internet access. The name says it all: it means ‘do it yourself’. These are just a few examples of businesses and NGOs that are working to cut the costs of connectivity and develop technical solutions that are suitable for developing-country markets.
Which type of internet is needed?
But many people are worried about the type of internet that the next billion users will be connected to. Will they gain open and unrestricted access? Or will they be limited to certain areas, meaning that they have a different type of access from those currently connected in the developed world? What is certain is that mobile internet will continue to play a key role in providing access to those who are excluded at present. But for that to happen, mobile broadband prices will have to fall. Another factor to be considered is that mobile devices offer only limited access to the internet.
‘People always fear change. People feared electricity when it was invented, didn’t they?’
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft
Imagine the following and increasingly common scenario: someone – perhaps a young person living in a rural region in a developing country – uses a smartphone and mobile internet to go online for the first time. Perhaps they have access to their parents’ internet-enabled phone and can afford to buy a small data allowance. They have an idea for designing a technical innovation that would solve a local problem. But all they have is a shared mobile device and a basic tariff that only provides access for a short time or to a limited number of websites. The nearest free public Wi-Fi connection – if there is one – is in the town centre, and internet-enabled computers are only available for use in a school library during opening hours.
It is obvious that under these circumstances, this person cannot harness their full potential. And yet this is the reality in regions where mobile internet access is given priority. This raises serious questions about mobile internet access. How useful is it in reality? Isn’t it creating a new digital divide?
Not just consumption: content creation counts
Limited internet access is better than none, according to conventional wisdom, and on the face of it, it is surely a sound argument. However, there is a risk that it will create a large group of internet users who are mainly consumers without the wherewithal to contribute or develop digital content of their own. Even if more people go online in the short term, they will not necessarily have equal opportunities in the longer term if this is their only way of accessing the internet.
Technological advances alone will not move us closer to the target. The digital divide is mainly the outcome of political failure, so we need sound policies that guide all activities in all sectors and have a lasting effect. Studies show that countries which have IT or broadband policies with clearly defined strategies and targets generally have more broadband connectivity – at lower prices.
Wanted: an internet policy roadmap
Policy frameworks must be put in place, based on a commitment to closing the gender gap and enabling universal and affordable access to the internet. What is needed is a clearly defined roadmap with quantifiable goals and actions to cut costs and help more people gain internet access within a specified timeframe.
‘Getting women online often delivers much greater benefits compared to men: women reinvest their profits in their children’s health and education.’
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook
How can it work? Costa Rica shows how: it is using a state fund to subsidise the costs of devices and broadband access for individual users or programmes. With support from this initiative, low-income households, communities, schools and health centres are gaining access to the internet. Around 95 per cent of qualifying households are headed by women. For women and low earners, the programme is opening up a digital world filled with opportunity.
For long-term success, we need much more than technical innovation: we also need people who are effective advocates for ground-breaking policies and creative solutions, especially in developing countries. That is the seedbed on which the transformative power of digitalisation will unfold its true potential.
published in akzente 1/18