Here at A4AI, we spent the few weeks before the start of the new year thinking about our predictions for the expansion of global broadband access in 2015. On the whole, we are hopeful that more governments will realise the necessity and benefit of policies that will encourage affordable and open access to the Internet for their citizens, and that innovation and competition will lower broadband service and device prices and enable millions more to get online. Here are some of our team’s predictions for this year:
- Net neutrality debate spreads globally: For the most part, the debate on whether or not all Internet traffic should be treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecom companies has focused on developed countries, especially as U.S. President Barack Obama came out urging the country’s regulator to adopt strict rules to protect net neutrality last November. In 2015, we expect the debate to continue expanding to emerging markets, where the broadband infrastructure realities are very different. Read our colleague’s Steve Song’s take on why neutrality should be created on the “access layer” of the Internet and the policies needed to enable access on a non-discriminatory basis.
- Related to this, expansion of zero-rated services could extend access, but debate on consequences will heat up: Operators will become more and more interested in pushing out zero-rated services such as Facebook Zero, which consumers can access without paying data charges, to attract customers in emerging markets. Supporters say this could expand Internet access to millions of unconnected, but concerns about “free” access to services being temporary bait to attract new customers and what this means for long-term broadband affordability and the future of the Internet’s openness and neutrality will continue to mount.
- National broadband plans across emerging markets will become more comprehensive and focus on lowering costs: According to the UN Broadband Commission, more than 130 countries now have national broadband or ICT plans, and we predict many of these plans will evolve to guide further investment in broadband and call for new regulatory incentives to reduce cost structures and further lower Internet prices for consumers. We also expect governments to increase focus on data reporting and analysis to monitor progress in implementing their broadband plans and ensure that access is inclusive of all citizens.
- Availability of low-cost smartphones will increase: The competition to get cheaper smartphones to the market will grow and allow millions of new customers, especially in Africa and Asia, to access the Internet on their mobiles. Microsoft recently announced the release of its cheapest ever smartphone, the Nokia 215, and Mozilla is continuing to expand its line of Firefox OS phones — these products are currently priced as low as $30. Additionally, we expect more governments to encourage the purchase of smartphones by cutting taxes on mobile devices — Ghana, where the A4AI national coalition had been directly lobbying the government, already announced they will drop their 20 percent import tax on handsets this year.
- New innovations and technology will be developed to connect the unconnected: Innovators, startups and corporations will develop more new technologies in 2015 to expand affordable access to the Internet. Aside from perfecting the technology, initiatives such as Outernet, Facebook’s drones, Google’s Project Loon and SpaceX’s micro-satellites will need to figure out how to make these innovations sustainable, marketable and usable on a mass scale.
- Attention on consumer and digital rights will spread globally: Last year’s landmark passing of the world’s first digital Bill of Rights, Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet ushered in new attention and focus on protecting the rights of Internet users. This year, we expect similar initiatives to crop up in other regions and countries, such as the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms that will be presented to the African Union this quarter. It is our hope that Internet affordability and accessibility remain key principles in the movement to promote human rights and openness in broadband policies and their implementation.