Thank your lucky satellites that our internet is (sort of) okay
But pity the world’s poorest who are still left in the ethereal dark
The internet today is central to our lives. We depend on the web to shop, bank, learn, work, date and play to a degree unimaginable even 10 years ago. On the odd occasion our connection goes down, we panic. Suddenly hundreds of simple day-to day tasks become inordinately difficult or time consuming.
Yet that is life for more than half the world’s population which is still offline. As plans were announced last week to bring driverless cars to the streets of London, billions have yet to send or receive their first e-mail.
Alarmingly, the latest UN figures show that the rate of people getting connected is slowing. In 2007 people came online at a rate of 19% annually. Last year this dropped to just 6% – and the rate of growth is projected to fall further.
In the first part of the web era, the free market did a spectacular job of getting people online. To go from zero to 3.6 billion people in 30 years is impressive by any measure. But that market momentum is now faltering, exacerbating the stark digital divide between the haves and have-nots.
Those left behind aren’t just missing out on playing games and browsing websites. Across the world (and often fastest in developing countries) access to healthcare, education, government services and business opportunities are shifting online. For those who are not connected, vital services are being put beyond reach, as are crucial opportunities to overcome poverty.
To close this gap we must look at why market incentives to connect everyone have cooled, and start by thinking creatively not just about connecting the next billion but about how to get the last billion – those hardest to reach – online.
There are a range of causes behind the slowdown, from a lack of digital skills and relevant content, to cost – which continues to be a persistent barrier to connecting everyone. The Alliance for Affordable Internet, an initiative hosted by the Web Foundation, published its annual Affordability Report last week and found that more than two billion people live in countries where the internet is unaffordable.
Across the 61 low- and middle-income countries measured in the report, the average price of 1GB of mobile data was 5% of average monthly income. In some countries, such as Mali and Zimbabwe, the cost rises as high as 33% of income – unaffordable to all but the wealthiest.
And the affordability challenge does not affect everyone equally. Worldwide, women earn less than men, and are less likely to be in charge of household finances, leading to a gender gap in internet access. Geography also matters – the cost of getting internet to more remote regions is higher, and less attractive if fewer potential customers live there.
To solve the connectivity challenge we need new partnerships that bring together governments, companies and citizens’ groups to each do their part in making the internet more affordable and accessible. Tax reforms can reduce costs to consumers, for example by ensuring smartphones and mobile data are not made more expensive through taxation. Governments can incentivise the private sector to participate in partnerships to build infrastructure, and development banks can prioritise funding for these projects. Governments and companies can jointly sponsor public access wifi points – for example on public transport or in safe public spaces.
We are seeing governments and companies starting to act. To bring down the price of connecting, the UN Broadband Commission, a group of business leaders, policy makers and international institutions, has said a basic level of internet access should cost no more than 2% of average income in any country.
There are a number of ways to bring down the cost to connect and re-energise the rate of the world’s population coming online to participate in our shared digital future. No single measure will solve the problem. But with imagination, ambition and cooperation, we can make the web for everyone.
- © The Daily Telegraph