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Affordability, Connectivity & Relevant Content Remain Challenges to Access in Asia

Shaddy Shadrach, A4AI’s Asia Regional Coordinator, offers insights on the efforts made and progress to achieve affordable access across Asia.

 

Mobile growth in Asia today accounts for two-thirds of mobile growth globally, and for more than 40% of global mobile revenue — a figure that surpasses the contribution made by North America and Europe combined. These figures, while impressive, arise primarily thanks to multiple SIM ownership in the Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and South Korean markets. The Asian continent, for the most part, remains unconnected — 68% of the region’s 4.5 billion people are still not online.

 

A4AI’s latest Affordability Report clearly reveals that the entire Asian continent has a lot of work to do. Of the 17 Asian countries surveyed in the report, only Malaysia occupies a top spot in the Affordability Drivers Index (ADI) — a ranking of countries based on efforts to develop and implement the policy measures needed to provide affordable access to all of their population.

 

A consolidation of the telecom market in India, the world’s second largest mobile nation, has led to a price war that is helping to drive prices down for consumers. However, the nation is failing to extend needed infrastructure to enable connectivity for rural and other far-flung locales. The country’s BharatNet programme — which aims to connect each of the 600,000 villages in India and is largely funded by India’s Universal Service Obligation Fund — has seen very slow progress, and is far from meeting the unquenched demands of the country’s rural populace.

 

Following impressive progress in 2015, Myanmar, witnessed some slump in 2016. The world’s first mobile-only nation struggled to strengthen infrastructure in the provinces beyond the three major cities of Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw, and Yangon. The promised one-window clearance for ‘right of way’ has not been implemented, and the responsibility for obtaining legal permissions for erecting towers rests entirely upon the operators and the infrastructure companies, who have to coordinate with numerous local government authorities in 14 different regions in order to obtain needed permission.

 

Bangladesh continues to boast some of the lowest internet prices in the region, and has more than 62 million unique mobile subscribers. However, Bangladesh is the only nation to still depend on 2G network to offer coverage to 97% of its population. This issue is compounded by the fact that over 70% of Bangladesh’s population lives in rural areas, earning less than US $2 per day — statistics that might help to explain why, despite seemingly affordable prices, only 14%  of the country is online. The country would do well to innovate with respect to dismantling layers in the mobile market where the price of bandwidth for the consumer is uncontained, and to focus on good management of its spectrum and taxation, or else it risks missing its digital Bangladesh 2021 goals.

 

The Philippines is the fastest growing internet population in the world, with 62% mobile adoption. However, average revenue per user (ARPU) has shrunk to below US$3.50, which is making it challenging for telecommunications companies to sustain growth.  on the other hand, having lost its status as the SMS capital of the world, moving its messaging to social media, is now the fastest growing Internet population of the world.

 

Around the world, affordability, digital literacy and a lack of locally relevant content persist as major obstacles to realising the global vision of internet access for all. A4AI will continue its work to expand affordable access across Asia in 2017 by working with governments, private sector stakeholders, and civil society to employ the following strategies in particular:

 

  • Increase use of public access solutions. Free or subsidised internet access in public spaces is critical to enabling access for those that cannot afford to connect and particularly in rural and other areas where infrastructure deployment is limited.  
  • Enable a competitive market through smart policy and regulation. Develop and implement policies that help to avoid market fragmentation and encourage healthy competition, resulting in lower costs for consumers.
  • Increase innovative use of spectrum. Make policies transparent and ensure that base prices for auctions not so high that only dominant operators can afford.
  • Facilitate infrastructure sharing. Governments should take proactive steps to encourage and/or incentivise sharing of resources and infrastructure between operators.
  • Use Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) effectively. Use USAF funds to increase opportunities for access and meaningful internet use by stimulating both supply- and demand-side factors.
  • Strengthen broadband planning. Use broadband planning as part of a holistic development plan; recognise access as an enabler for achieving sustainable development goals, rather than viewing the ICT sector purely as a revenue producer.

Implementing these strategies is critical to enabling affordable, universal internet access; successful implementation will require government leadership and commitment, as well as the cooperation, support, and leadership of stakeholders from across the private and civil society sectors. We need to see everyone pulling up their socks to walk the talk in 2017.

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