This post was written by Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Head of Digital Inclusion at the Web Foundation, and Dhanaraj Thakur, Research Director at the Web Foundation.
At the end of 2018, as half the world’s population was online for the first time, it was clear to us that our efforts to secure basic affordable access were not enough. Far too many people remain offline, mostly in low and middle income countries, and among those who are connected, there is a wide disparity in the quality of internet they access. We must do more to ensure that everyone can access an internet that is transformational and life-changing.
To raise the bar for internet access, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has developed “Meaningful Connectivity” — a new standard that measures not only if someone has access to the internet, but the quality of connection they have.
Our ambition is to ensure that internet access contributes to development and equal opportunity, rather than becoming yet another means to increase social and economic inequality. To achieve this, we must aim for more than basic universal connectivity.
As there are no alternative existing global frameworks for evaluating Meaningful Connectivity, our proposed standard is a first step towards redefining how internet access is measured. This standard will help policymakers to target improved quality of service in addition to expanding reach.
Equal internet access is a must for development
Today, someone is counted as being online if they have used the internet from any device in the past three months. There is no distinction in the kind of access they have. Whether someone has super-fast in-home fibre broadband or an occasional connection to a 2.5G mobile network, they count as being online. If we look only at this basic metric, we are in danger of ignoring serious digital inequality spreading across the world, even as more people get online.
We should think of internet access not as a binary state, but a ladder of quality that is constantly extending. If billions of people are stuck at the bottom rung of this ladder while others climb to ever more powerful connectivity, this gap between groups will widen and digital inequality will grow. This is already happening. Previous A4AI research has underlined the wide regional disparities in quality of service with, for example, users in Africa facing average median download speeds of less than a seventh the speed enjoyed by European users. This is simply unacceptable.
With digital technology playing an ever more important role in our societies and economies, a failure to tackle these substantial digital divides will exacerbate existing inequalities.
Meaningful Connectivity for Digital Equality
While stubborn digital divides persist, we believe that technology can be a base to improve socio-economic outcomes. But this will require targeted efforts to ensure that everyone has sufficient access to good quality bandwidth and devices. “Meaningful Connectivity” provides a framework for differentiating levels of internet access so that decision makers are better able to enact policy that helps people connect to an internet that is useful and empowering.
What makes a connection meaningful?
- The right speed: Users need sufficient download speeds to access multimedia and other applications that make up a full internet experience.
- An adequate device: Users must be able to both produce and consume content online. Mobile only access is not the same as access via a laptop or desktop, because a full physical keyboard is better suited to content creation and productivity.
- Enough data: Lack of data should not stand in the way of individuals fully using the internet based applications they consider important.
- Frequent connection: If a user can only connect to the internet every so often, it is less likely to be a meaningful tool for them.
This concept focuses on the core components required for an internet connection that gives people the power, flexibility, and freedom to engage in the kinds of online activities that can deliver substantial benefits — things like online learning, conducting business, creating and sharing content, managing finances, and accessing information about healthcare.
Our definition of Meaningful Connectivity includes a measurement framework with initial benchmarks to guide policymakers on the interventions needed to address each component. We will develop these benchmarks based on research we are conducting now in low and middle income countries. They will evolve as technology improves and new technologies are introduced, demanding that we raise standards for quality of connectivity.
Universal Meaningful Connectivity for everyone
We must not settle for a world where the top earners have super-powered internet and the rest get by on mediocre or substandard connectivity. If the internet is to live up to its potential as a transformative and empowering technology, we need to focus on providing Meaningful Connectivity for everyone. This new standard provides guidance to achieve a world where everyone can connect to an internet that will change their lives for the better.
We invite you to support this effort by advocating for Meaningful Connectivity and by encouraging policy makers and other sector players to adopt the standard.
Read more about Meaningful Connectivity, how it will be measured and the next steps for developing the standard. If you have feedback on the standard, we would love to hear it.
Join our team for a webinar on October 3 to discuss this proposal or email us your feedback and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more updates on our work, follow us on Twitter at @a4a_internet.