Last week, the ITU released its latest edition of ICT Facts & Figures, which looks at the global ICT landscape in 2015 and the role that the ICT revolution has played in driving global development.
The data highlights just how much the sector has grown since 2000, and the outlook is promising: in 2000, 400 million people were Internet users; by the end of 2015, an estimated 3.2 billion people will be online, with 2.1 billion of these users from developing countries. As the number of people with access to the Internet grows across all corners of the globe, so too does the potential for ICTs to play an important role in achieving post-2015 global development agenda goals.
Despite the impressive growth of ICT and Internet use over the past fifteen years, much work remains to close the digital divide and realise the full social, economic, and developmental potential that Internet access can bring. Breaking the figures down by year, we can see that the pace of progress is slow, and has been further slowing in recent years. In Africa, for example, Internet use has grown just 1.7% over the past 12 months (from an estimated 19% in 2014 to 20.7% in 2015). At this rate, it will take decades for Africa to reach the Internet usage levels currently seen in Europe (77.6%) — a worrying proposition for those of us that believe that closing the digital divide will enable faster and more equitable socio-economic development.
Even a closer look at the impressive growth of mobile broadband across Africa raises concerns. While growth in the use of mobile broadband — the primary means by which most Africans access the Internet — has been faster over the past year in Africa (34%) than in Europe (13%), Africa is the only region where mobile broadband penetration today remains under 20% (17.4% in 2015). Increased 3G and 4G network coverage has contributed to the speed of mobile broadband growth in Africa; however, this network coverage remains limited primarily to urban areas and is having little impact on overall Internet usage, as most of those taking up newly available 3G and 4G services are existing urban users who are simply upgrading from narrowband to broadband Internet. How can we increase access and adoption among both urban dwellers (who have access but don’t currently use the services available) and rural populations?
Cost remains a significant barrier to increased access and usage. The ITU research highlights that while fixed broadband prices dropped significantly between 2008 and 2011, prices have since stagnated and even increased in some least developed countries. Even mobile broadband remains unaffordable for most, with prices in developing countries “twice as expensive as in developed countries.” A4AI’s recent Affordability Report research found that women, rural dwellers, and those living in poverty were least likely to be able to afford a broadband connection; by keeping those populations that could arguably benefit most from Internet access offline, the digital and developmental divide becomes further entrenched.
The ITU does note that 111 countries have met the UN Broadband Commission target of basic (fixed or mobile) broadband plans priced at less than 5% of average GNI per capita. This is a positive development, but the UN target can be a misleading one for those focused on connecting the most marginalised populations. In many developing and less developed countries, the majority of people live on $2 per day or less, which is often much less than the official average income. In India, for example, where 60% of the population lives in poverty, an entry-level mobile broadband connection will cost a person living on $2 per day 29% of their income. If we are to connect the many millions living in poverty, the cost of accessing entry-level broadband will need to be much lower than 5% of average income.
While reducing cost is a multifaceted process, the factors involved can be broken down simply into: (1) the cost of providing access (largely borne by the private sector through investments in the rolling out and management of ICT infrastructure, though some governments have also made considerable investments in this infrastructure); (2) the cost of devices that enable people to connect; and (3) the cost of the services, paid for by users. These cost factors are inextricably linked and must be reduced.
What needs to happen to ensure that the challenges posed by costs are tackled, access to broadband continues to increase, and broadband prices continue fall to affordable levels? Governments must commit to policies that will make the Internet affordable, easily accessible, and useful to their people, and must work together with businesses, civil society, and other ICT stakeholders to coordinate the implementation of these policies. Such policies could include: increased infrastructure sharing and open access; the reduction of taxes on the import and sale of ICT goods and services; the timely, transparent and economically efficient allocation of spectrum to operators; and the increased use of public-private partnerships to invest in infrastructure and programmes that will enable more people to come online.
This blog post was written by Kojo Boakye, A4AI’s Policy Manager.
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