The spread of Covid-19 has highlighted and amplified the digital inequalities that exist between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. Communities that were increasingly connected saw themselves falling behind and public spaces that allowed people to access connectivity were now closed. To connect the world in the next nine years we need 428 billion dollars in infrastructure investment. Although there is growth in subsea cables, last mile connectivity continues to lag. This is why we have to continue to explore options to advance last mile connectivity. Sustainable connectivity business models can be a challenge as demonstrated with Alphabet, Google’s parent company’s decision to shutting down Loon, a project that used helium balloons to improve internet access in remote areas. Any solution to connect rural areas must be affordable, inclusive and have sustainable delivery, making it important to answer fundamental questions on how to get last mile connectivity to rural and remote areas.
A4AI recently hosted a webinar on challenges and opportunities on last mile connectivity where Eleanor Sarpong, A4AI’s Deputy Director and Policy Lead, highlighted important questions on why connectivity endeavours are often unsuccessful, the challenges with scaling successful and proven solutions, how we can utilize public private partnerships to ensure sustainability and what key policy recommendations we need going forward.
Here are the key takeaways:
Last Mile Connectivity: The Role of Fibre
Steven Song, Policy Advisor at Mozilla, highlighted that the current models and technologies we have for connectivity are not enough to bring access to all communities and the current way we approach these challenges – examining the divide between the Global North and Global South – is not enough as the challenges now primarily occur between rural and remote areas. Therefore, developing strategies that will enable rural access are key to solving the connectivity problem. This should be done through unlocking a regulatory environment for smaller operators to address local needs. Currently small operators are often unable to provide access in rural areas because the cost of access to fibre backhaul is too high in these areas. This means that while small operators can be competitive in a major city, the cost to access backhaul is the critical enabler to small providers.
Policy Considerations for Sustainable Last Mile Connectivity Solutions
Aminata Amadou-Garba, Senior Technology Coordinator at ITU, highlighted that despite the meteoric growth of internet use and broadband connectivity 49% of the world’s population remains offline. The two main reasons for this, as highlighted in ITU’s Last-mile Internet Connectivity Solutions Guide, is that some people in rural areas are unable to connect due to high costs or that they lack infrastructure as many providers do not feel they would get a return on their investment to build infrastructure in rural areas. To address these challenges, providers must couple financial viability with affordability, taking into consideration not just the GDP of a country but the GDP of the people in rural areas. To do this, policy and regulations – such as market efficiency interventions and recurring financing – are needed to actually impact affordability.
Community Networks to Address Last Mile Connectivity
Josepine Miliza, Africa Regional Coordinator at APC, highlighted that to understand the viability of community networks we must understand the offline populations and their needs as some rural communities, for example, lack supporting infrastructure such as electricity. The development of community networks must use a citizen driven model and Miliza highlighted successful community networks that use this mode – BOSCO Uganda, PamojaNET, and Zenzeleni. The current key challenges of community networks are unsupportive policy and regulatory environments, inadequate early stage financing and investments, and limited supply of locally skilled individuals. Policy recommendations that would target these issues are establishment of financing mechanisms for telecommunications cooperatives, inclusive licensing and spectrum sharing frameworks, and a bottom up model for capacity building and innovation.
To create sustainable last mile connectivity solutions, an enabling regulatory environment must be created through country policy. This policy has to take into consideration the reality of local communities and the viability of multiple solutions – such as community networks, not for profit providers, and affordable access to fibre backhaul for smaller providers – to address the digital divide.
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