The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that internet access is more important than ever — not a luxury, but a lifeline. But nearly half the global population does not have access to the internet when they need it most, and many more have inadequate access. Research Manager for Access and Affordability Teddy Woodhouse (@TeddyWoodhouse) shares insights on what governments can do to bring down broadband costs and expand access, including findings from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI)’s latest Affordability Report.
This is an annual project. Tell me about how this annual report fits into the work of A4AI.
At the Alliance for Affordable Internet, we’re focused on driving down the price of internet access, with particular attention on low- and middle-income countries. We do that by bringing together stakeholders from across different sectors — governments, companies, and civil society organisations — to work to implement policy and regulatory reform.
The Affordability Report is one of the most comprehensive policy resources in terms of understanding the broadband policy environment. This year, it compares 72 countries and analyses how these different policy environments interact with other factors such as income or education to create markets that lead to more affordable prices for consumers.
In the report you point out that the global pandemic has highlighted the need for affordable internet. Can you expand on this?
It is self-evident how much of our lives has moved online — everything from commerce to education, to our social lives and gatherings. Do we accept the continued exclusion of the poor from something that has become a fundamental aspect of human life in modern society?
We, along with the UN Broadband Commission, define affordability as ‘1 for 2’ — 1GB for no more than 2% of average monthly income. But even if you reach that target there are challenges. In the context of the pandemic, the World Bank estimates that around 88 to 115 million people are moving into extreme poverty, living on less than $2 a day. For them, that means internet access is now even further away from being affordable.
And it’s not just about those who are offline, though of course that is a huge factor. It’s also about those people who are already online, but who have to ration their data use to make sure it is within their budget. Consumers should be able to use how much they need — not just how much they can afford.
Tell me about the Affordability Drivers Index. What criteria do you use to assess progress?
The Affordability Drivers Index is not a measure of affordability itself. It correlates quite well with affordability, but “drivers” is the key word. It measures a number of factors that can affect affordability, drive down the cost of broadband, and make it affordable for as many people as possible. It’s a quantitative measurement, but we also look qualitatively at the history of policy in these areas, too.
What are the general trends when it comes to affordability?
Fortunately, in general we are seeing positive trends across the countries that we measure and have measured for the last five years or so. Policies are getting better and the circumstances are more favourable — the price of broadband will continue to fall in tandem with that. Quite optimistically, we are seeing the greatest changes in the markets where change is most needed. So for example, African consumers have seen the greatest drop over the past five years, with the cost of 1GB going from 10.9% to 4.3% of average monthly income. This is less than half of where it was, but it is still above the 1 for 2 affordability target. We’re moving in the right direction, but there is still plenty of progress to be made.
This year’s report focuses on national broadband plans. Why was this the focus? How do national broadband plans affect the general public and internet users?
National broadband plans offer the greatest potential for the positive outcomes governments are looking for and what we’re trying to all collectively achieve.
At A4AI, we published a report along with the ITU that estimated that the cost of connecting the rest of the world in the next 10 years will be $428 billion of additional investment. That investment is most effective when it is spent through the coordination that national broadband plans offer. It will mean fibre connections to school for learners. It will mean evolution in e-commerce for businesses. The way national broadband plans guide investment decisions really do affect all users, no matter their background.
Are there any success stories (national or regional) that can be used as models for places that aren’t doing as well?
This year’s top three countries are Malaysia, Colombia, and Costa Rica.
In Malaysia, each new plan builds on the success of the previous one. Many of these plans set clear, ambitious targets around expanding access in new geographies and for vulnerable communities, through everything from building new towers to making handsets more affordable.
In Colombia, there was good progress on clear targets and there was also greater transparency. That was exemplified even further in Costa Rica, where there was almost a radical degree of transparency. In Costa Rica, the plan is supported by regular annual reports that are publicly available and assess how well the country is doing in terms of achieving its goals. Processes like that are really helpful in terms of creating accountability where one part of the sector might be falling behind, but also to keep everyone’s interests aligned and on mission.
What obstacles to progress do you see?
There are obstacles throughout the process — the national broadband planning process actually takes years. Consultations can be underinclusive, meaning you lose out on the richness of a diversity of perspectives. Then it could be a failure to align interests when agreeing on the plan. And even during implementation, you can face obstacles because there has been a failure to set realistic targets. The important lesson is that national broadband plans are not standalone documents. They are a broader process that exists across multiple years.
What recommendations do you have for governments when it comes to the development and implementation of national broadband plans?
Governments must consult widely and bring in as many stakeholders as possible, from the private sector, from the public sector, from civil society. When you have an inclusive process, you build the coalition that is going to guide the development and implementation of the plan. Second, governments must set clear targets. Targets are essential because they create accountability in the whole process. The third thing that is important to consider is funding. You can’t just have nice words on a document. The plans need to be supported through strategic investments from the public sector.
Why should governments prioritise the provision of affordable internet?
The general global experience of how fundamental the internet has been during the pandemic has led governments to think very seriously about their digital economy and digital society — for example, governments have had to consider how to keep education going when schools must close.
I do think that there is political will to drive down the cost to connect. As the world begins to recover from the pandemic and return to the “new normal”, we must advocate for governments to keep in place policies that they may have seen as temporary but are particularly effective at driving down the price of access for users who most need assistance.