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Rural Broadband Policy Framework: Connecting the Unconnected

In partnership with the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and Facebook, A4AI has published the Rural Broadband Policy Framework (RBPF). Read the full brief here and infographic here.

Today, half of the global population still remains offline. The reality of the geographic divide is bleak: most of those offline are from low and middle income countries, and only 14% of rural areas have access compared to 42% in urban areas in countries of the Global South.

In order to achieve the universal goals for reducing inequality and achieving universal access by 2030, clear frameworks that can guide and speed up progress are crucial. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), in partnership with APC, CIPESA, DEF and Facebook, developed the Rural Broadband Policy Framework (RBPF) to provide guidance to help address the persistent ‘Digital Divide’ faced by people living in rural areas.

Unique characteristics of rural areas for digital development

People living in rural areas face a unique set of challenges related to broadband access and use, which those in urbanised areas do not face. There are geographical challenges – rural areas are often far from existing infrastructure and are characterised by challenging terrain. These areas often lack the resources and infrastructure that is needed to connect those offline. Rural areas also usually tend to have a lower number of potential customers when compared to urbanised areas. This makes it difficult to support the traditional business case for the large investments necessary to establish broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

These factors and others result in lower-than-average internet penetration in rural areas, even in countries where this average is already low.

Key criteria to develop Rural Broadband Policy Framework

For policymakers and decision-makers to consider and adopt policy approaches most likely to increase the development of broadband infrastructure and services in underserved rural areas, the following key criteria for RBPF should be considered: 

1. Broadband policies should improve the availability of high-quality, affordable broadband services in underserved rural areas.

2. Rural broadband policies should draw from real-world experience—locally, regionally, and globally.

3. Rural broadband policies should harness the resources and capabilities of the private sector and complementary providers, such as community networks. 

4. Rural broadband policies should be comprehensive.  

5. Rural broadband policies (and all broadband policies) must be gender responsive. 

6. Effective implementation will require evidence and standards. internet with defined broadband speeds, relevant devices, etc).

After establishing the high-level criteria that the RBPF should satisfy, policymakers must develop and implement the actual policies that will constitute that framework through an inclusive, iterative, and consultative process with stakeholders. 

Elements of the Rural Broadband Policy Framework 

Once the high-level criteria that the RBPF should satisfy is established, policymakers must develop and implement the actual policies that will make up the framework. This should be done through a consultative process that is inclusive, iterative, and consultative.

1. Harness market competition while addressing market failures. Policymakers harness competitive market dynamics for the benefit of consumers in rural areas—by staying out of the way where possible, and promulgating targeted regulations where necessary to address instances where the market is failing to function as expected or otherwise meet the needs of the public.

2. Streamline regulatory processes. Policymakers must carefully balance the costs and benefits of the rural broadband policies they promulgate, such as create a supportive regulatory environment for nascent rural operations, and streamline regulations governing market entry in rural areas.  

3. Invest in and improve public access and universal service and access funds. Policymakers should invest in rural public access solutions,such as telecentres, community centres, public WiFi networks, to expand access.

4. Effectively manage spectrum resources. To use wireless communications technologies effectively, operators must be able to access and use sufficient radiofrequency spectrum, free from harmful interference.  RBPF should facilitate such access to leverage spectrum.

5. Leverage innovative technologies, architectures, and business models. The RBPF should be flexible to accommodate new innovations and technologies as it occurs; ‘legacy’ regulations, built around old technologies and architectures, should not prevent these benefits from being realized. 

6. Adopt appropriate tax and fee structures. Policymakers adopt tax and fee structures that encourage the deployment of broadband infrastructure and services in rural areas. 

7. Stimulate demand for broadband services. Policymakers should expand demand-side services by rural populations, such as enhancing digital literacy and increasing local content. 

These types of efforts are critical to help sustain rural broadband operations over time.

Next steps for implementing the Framework 

Along with publishing this Framework, A4AI and its partners will move forward with this project with the following activities:

  • Publish selected case studies to illustrate the elements of the Framework in action
  • Create an effective web based tool to share the Framework and accompanying resources
  • Organize a series of seminars, workshops and webinars to engage with policy makers and support implementation of the Framework across the regions

We look forward to engaging A4AI members, partners, and friends along the way as we expand on these activities to help close the rural digital divide. 

Visit the Rural Broadband Policy Framework webpage here

Read the full brief here and infographic here.

Watch the virtual launch of the brief here

For more updates on our work, follow us on Twitter at @a4a_internet.