In September 2015, world leaders gathered at the UN and agreed: The Internet is critical for global development and everyone, everywhere, should have access by 2020.
Now, the key question is — what will it take to meet that target? Our 2015-16 Affordability Report, released today, explores that question, taking an in-depth look at the barriers to affordable Internet we must overcome to make universal access for all a reality.
The bad news? Without urgent action, we will miss the target by over 20 years, achieving universal access across the world’s least developed countries by 2042 at the earliest. Over four billion people around the world are still offline and, on current trends, we’ll see just 16% of people in the world’s poorest countries, and 53% of the world as a whole, connected by 2020.
That means at least one more generation in many countries will grow up locked out of the digital revolution — unable to use the Web for education, work, health, political activism…or just to connect with their friends and family.
What’s keeping people offline? Our report argues that the primary barrier today is high prices. The UN Broadband Commission defines broadband as affordable if an entry-level (500MB) package is available at 5% or less of average monthly income (i.e., GNI per capita). Yet, in 2014, the average cost of a 500MB prepaid bundle was 15.2% of GNI per capita in LDCs and 6.5% across developing countries. Around 70% of people in LDCs cannot afford a basic, 500MB per month broadband plan.
Our analysis also shows how poverty and income inequality are masking the true state of Internet affordability. While 25 of the 51 countries examined in the report have met the 5% target, not a single country analysed met the target for those living in poverty ($3.10 or less a day). Just nine countries met the target for the bottom 20% of income earners. This means that millions continue to be priced out of the digital revolution — even in countries which offer “affordable” Internet. Women are particularly hard hit by high prices, and the study notes that poor urban women are 50% less likely than male counterparts to be online.
What can we do to reverse these trends? The Affordability Report offers some answers.
The first thing to note is that we need to act fast. If we are serious about achieving universal access by 2020, we need to condense almost 30 years worth of work into the next five years. Governments, companies, and civil society all need to work together to build open, competitive markets that drive prices down. The technical solutions we need are largely ready — it’s up to countries to provide the policy and regulatory environments needed to let them do their work, and to companies to implement them. Donors must come to the party with financial and practical assistance.
Second, we need to be more ambitious. Our analysis found that when a basic broadband package is priced at 2% or less of average monthly income, access becomes affordable for all levels of income earners. So, the report proposes a new affordability target: 1GB of mobile broadband priced at 2% or less of average monthly income (“1 for 2”). 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.
Last, we can’t lose sight of the fact that driving prices down won’t connect everyone fast enough. To ensure marginalised groups get online rapidly, we need to look to free or subsidised public access in tandem with digital education.
The Affordability Report is essential reading for anyone who cares about technology and development. You can read it here, and you can follow A4AI on Twitter or Facebook to stay up to date with latest news and join the global conversation on this issue.