Good broadband policy today is the key to a strong, thriving digital economy in the future.
Broadband policy issues are often discussed as an afterthought or as a promising proposal for technological revolution with minimal investment. Broadband policy is a smart investment – when done right. Done wrong, it leaves unaffordable data and handset costs – keeping people offline and limiting network coverage for entire communities or regions.
Broadband policy can help economies grow and address societal issues, but it needs high-level commitment to expand connectivity and build wide foundations for a digital economy that has room for growth. Learning from case studies across the Global South, here are five actions policymakers can take to lower internet prices, expand connectivity, and build a thriving digital economy:
1. Make ambitious broadband plans, with long-term vision and targets for inclusion. Countries like Malaysia and Colombia consistently score well on the Affordability Drivers Index because of the long-term vision within their national broadband planning and regular iterations. Malaysia’s National Broadband Initiative prioritised connecting rural communities to create the inclusive, nationwide demand for internet that now sustains one of the world’s most competitive mobile broadband markets. Authorities in Colombia similarly provided a welcoming environment for investment with their sector stability.
2. Use radio waves to grow economic activity, not raise revenue. Electromagnetic spectrum – the radio waves that carry signals between towers and mobile phones or Wi-Fi routers and computers – is too often highly priced. This means only few can use it and less of that money can be used to support network development. Countries like Myanmar saw increased access with affordable spectrum pricing, and Mexico also established a good example of regulation of spectrum access for local, community networks for indigenous communities. Similarly, Argentina created model regulation to enable community networks to gain legal recognition and use spectrum as well.
3. Treat mobile phones like the lifelines they are. A smartphone is no longer a luxury device: for millions of people, a mobile phone keeps families together, communities informed, and countries engaged. Mobile phones are the entry point for many into the digital economy, but they’re also a big reason why people can’t afford to connect. Countries like Kenya and Colombia have removed luxury taxes on these devices, and others like Costa Rica have even made subsidised devices available to vulnerable groups.
4. Build a backbone network to connect the whole country. This high-capacity bandwidth is essential for supporting large data flows that allows for a reliable internet connection to be used for business, education, health, and more. Ugandan officials could move more of their services online only because they had the backbone network to support their staff. Life online transformed for people in Vanuatu when they connected to their first submarine cable.
5. Invest in public access. Last but no means the least important, public access opens the digital economy to more voices and new communities. In both urban and rural contexts, public access, like Wi-Fi access points, community centres, libraries, and other institutions, help connect everyone and help expand users’ average data allowance, especially those who struggle to afford the cost of a reliable connection. Through this, it creates new opportunities and strengthens the economy. Countries like Bolivia have been able to make promising strides towards connectivity, despite lower average incomes and a challenging physical terrain, because of its investment in public access solutions. India’s experience with the Sanchar Shakti project demonstrates how to make these projects inclusive to the widest number of people.
These are just five specific points of policy intervention to expand connectivity and make internet access more affordable. Broadband policy defines the environment in which a digital economy will grow: that economy has the greatest room to grow when policymakers build wide, inclusive foundations for everyone to be able to use and profit from affordable internet access.
Read the Good Practices Database Case Studies here
For more updates on our work, follow us on Twitter at @a4a_internet.