Kojo Boakye, A4AI’s Deputy Director – Policy Lead, shares his reflections on ICT affordability discussions from the recent CTO Forum 2015, which he attended from September 14-16 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Last month, I was afforded the opportunity to attend the annual Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Forum, which was held this year in Nairobi, Kenya. This event not only enabled me to meet old friends and colleagues (before joining A4AI, I worked for the CTO for more than 9 years), but also to learn about recent developments in and future plans for the ICT sector across the Commonwealth.
Home to more than 2.3 billion people – a third of the world’s population – the 53 nations of the Commonwealth comprise both the world’s most advanced ICT nations in terms of Internet access (e.g., the UK, Singapore, Australia, Canada and Malaysia) and some of the world’s most underdeveloped (e.g., Sierra Leone, Malawi and Mozambique). Indeed, the disparity in Internet and broadband access between the most developed Commonwealth nations and the least developed may undermine efforts to create common social and economic wealth between the countries. This disparity was a major focus for the CTO’s new Secretary General, Engineer Shola Taylor, and for many other participants throughout the conference, and much of the discussion around how to close this digital divide centred on the issue of affordability.
Listening to these discussions made me realise just how far we’ve come in the two years since A4AI was launched at the 2013 CTO Forum in Abuja, Nigeria. While that event explored themes that are still very relevant today, including policy and regulation development and rural access to ICT, much of the discussion looked at how to drive technological change, innovation and services. There was very little talk about how much these services might cost, what sort of investment would be needed to drive this development, and where the funds would actually come from.
I was struck this year by how far the conversation has shifted. In every session I attended in Nairobi, there was reference to the affordability of Internet – or the lack thereof – in much of the Commonwealth. Of course the cost of services vis-a-vis levels of income was mentioned, but discussion also centred on: cost structures and how these might be changed; how we might improve infrastructure sharing and open access; what tax regimes have worked best to drive broadband development; and what Commonwealth Universal Service Funds (like those in Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania) have done well, and what might they have done better.
For myself, the rest of the A4AI team, and the members of the Alliance, the nature of the conversation– and the apparent mainstreaming of affordability issues in the Commonwealth – is yet another signal of the momentum of our work and the effect of our efforts to advocate for the importance of affordability. As I mentioned in the first of the two panels I participated in, we today have more evidence than ever before about what policies and regulations drive affordability and access (e.g., A4AI’s own annual Affordability Report) and an ever-growing list of examples of what works to drive down broadband prices (and what doesn’t). We also now have more ways than ever to share this information – key stakeholders can exchange experiences and information online, and can come together at events like the CTO Forum to move these discussions into concrete ideas and actions. Our aim now must be to ensure that this mainstreaming of affordability issues translates into the increased use of best practices that drive affordability and a real drop in the cost to connect for citizens throughout the Commonwealth and throughout the world.
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