Could universal broadband access spark a global entrepreneurship revolution? If the outcomes of last week’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit are anything to go by, the answer may be yes. In front of 1200 delegates from over 170 countries, US President Barack Obama announced that he had signed into law the Global Connect Initiative (GCI), signalling US commitment to promote global growth by expanding connectivity.
By way of quick background: The GCI was launched in September 2015 by the US State Department and aims to bring online an additional 1.5 billion people by 2020. Since its launch, US government investment financing for global ICT and connectivity projects has, according to US figures, surpassed $1 billion.
The Executive Order signed by President Obama at the Summit calls on the US State Department, in coordination with other development and financing agencies, to encourage foreign countries to prioritise Internet connectivity in development plans. It proposes “the formation of region-specific multi-sector working groups to ensure technical and regulatory best practices, and…the development of digital literacy programs in developing nations”.
We applaud President Obama for recognising the potential of connectivity to promote economic growth and opportunity, and for prioritising efforts to ensure a “coordinated and consistent” approach to achieving global goals of universal, affordable access. The benefits of increased broadband access to economic development and entrepreneurial growth are immense; yet, the benefits of access go well beyond the economic, providing opportunities for improved social, health, education, democratic, and development outcomes.
In order to connect billions more and realise this full range of connectivity-related benefits, we are calling on the US government and its partners to:
Focus on true digital inclusion.
Expanding access has the potential to underpin achievement of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), increasing access to knowledge and opportunities. To ensure these benefits are equitably distributed, we must recognise the need for policies and programmes aimed explicitly at increasing connectivity among certain groups, such as women and the poor. These populations are disproportionately underrepresented online, and are most likely to be left behind by market-led efforts to expand connectivity through lower prices. True universal access remains a long way off — A4AI research shows that at current rates, we won’t be able to connect the last billions until 2042, at the earliest. Accelerating progress and unlocking the potential of expanded access for all will require focus on enabling access for those least likely to be online, and it is essential that GCI-led efforts recognise this. Public access solutions and digital skills training are just two important factors here.
Commit to real investment.
By institutionalising GCI, the US has underscored the importance of extending connectivity for global development and has committed an impressive $1 billion to funding this initiative. We need to ensure that these funds reflect new and increased commitments in connectivity projects. The US cannot fill the funding gap alone though, and the reality of multilateral development bank (MDB) spending urgently requires real change — preliminary analysis suggests that ICT programmes receive only 1-2% of total MDB infrastructure investment. In order to achieve the goals of GCI — and the global access goal laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals — ICT investment must be seen and treated as a top priority, with substantial increased investment dedicated to developing the infrastructure and programmes needed to expand access. Governments and multilaterals must also commit to transparency around both the resources committed and those actually disbursed to these efforts. A4AI will be leading a working group to advise MDBs and other stakeholders on the policy priorities and financial and technical assistance strategies needed to achieve universal access.
Ensure connectivity comes with online rights.
At the centre of the GCI is the understanding that universal and affordable Internet access will lead to improved economic, social, and developmental outcomes. Access, however, is just one part of the equation; to unlock the full power of connectivity, users must be able to access a free and open Internet, where basic human rights and freedoms are respected. Without this, the Internet risks becoming a one-way medium, where a small number of powerful stakeholders control how it is shaped and used.
Coordinate with existing connectivity efforts.
There are a number of initiatives out there working to make universal, affordable access a reality, including A4AI, Internet Society programmes, and private sector initiatives from companies such as Microsoft and Google. Through years of experience working on the ground to develop and implement solutions to connectivity challenges, these programmes have gained valuable insights into what has worked — and what hasn’t. We commend GCI for taking the time to reach out to and coordinate with A4AI and other access efforts, and encourage them to continue to build on this process of consultation and coordination. Doing so will ensure that GCI’s work starts from a place of strength, and in the long-run, will also streamline investments, strengthen programmes on the ground, and reduce potential duplication of efforts.
Want to learn more?
In April, A4AI had the opportunity to attend a high-level GCI meeting co-hosted by the State Department and the World Bank. At this meeting, A4AI Honorary Chair, Dr Omobola Johnson, presented a number of concrete policy recommendations for achieving universal, affordable Internet for all to the global finance ministers and others in attendance. You can read more about those calls to action here.