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Other barriers to internet use says ITU

By , ITWeb
Africa , 21 May 2020

On average, prices for mobile-voice, mobile-data and fixed-broadband services are decreasing steadily around the world and the reduction in price relative to income is even more dramatic, suggesting that, globally, telecommunication and ICT services are becoming more affordable.

This is according to analysis by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

In a report Measuring Digital Development: ICT Price Trends 2019, the organisation has concluded that both trends do not translate into rapidly increasing internet penetration rates which suggests that there are other barriers to internet use.

Keeping telecommunication and digital services as affordable as possible has always been important to ensure broader Internet uptake, especially for lower-income households and consumers," said Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General. "In the face of COVID-19, this is more vital than ever. People who do not have access to the Internet may not be able to access information about how to protect themselves from coronavirus, telework, learn remotely and connect with families and friends during quarantine."

The latest statistics from ITU confirm that affordability may not be the only barrier to internet uptake, and that other factors such as low level of education, lack of relevant content, lack of content in local languages, lack of digital skills, and a low-quality Internet connection may also prevent effective use.

"The COVID-19 crisis has clearly shown us that nobody is safe until we are all safe. By the same token, we will not be able to use the full potential of digital technologies until we are all connected," said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. "To connect all, we need to address all factors that may prevent meaningful connectivity."

46% of world offline

In April 2020 The Web Foundation warned that the response to Covid-19 is being held back by a global failure to connect more people to the internet - with 46% of the world’s population still offline.

The organisation stated that the analysis, published in Communications of the ACM, projects that the world will miss two key UN targets designed to boost internet access. The first - part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals - aims to reach ‘universal access’ in least developed countries by 2020.

The second, set by the UN’s Broadband Commission, sets a 2025 target to get 75% of people globally and 35% of people in least-developed countries access to a broadband connection.

The Web Foundation’s analysis projects that by the end of this year, 57% of people globally and 23% in least developed countries will have internet access - falling far short of the 85% the organisation uses as a reference for ‘universal access’.

Further, the model predicts that internet access will rise only to 70% (global) and 31% (least developed) by 2025, around 5% short of the more conservative Broadband Commission target.

Adrian Lovett, Web Foundation President & CEO said: “The web is a critical lifeline. And yet billions are not connected as we fail to meet these targets. While this crisis affects everyone, those without the tools to protect themselves and their families are more vulnerable to the virus and its painful economic and social impacts. It’s clearer than ever that the web is a basic right, not a luxury. Efforts to tackle Covid-19 must include getting as many people connected to the internet as quickly as possible. This global pandemic has cruelly exposed the extent of the digital divide. Governments and companies must work urgently to accelerate progress to ensure that everyone, everywhere has the opportunity to get online.”

Carlos Iglesias, Web Foundation Senior Research Manager said the SDG target uses the ITU definition of internet users: those who have connected from any location and device in the last three months. That could mean occasionally checking emails on a public WiFi network with a shared family phone - not a level of connectivity with which most of us would be satisfied.

“And the Broadband Commission target is for people to have a broadband connection. But because there is no global data on broadband delivery, our predictions are based on the less ambitious ITU definition of access. This means that in reality, the share of people with a broadband connection will really be far lower than we’ve projected. In this crisis, when the internet has become essential infrastructure, people need regular access to a suitable device and enough data at sufficient speeds - what the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4A) calls ‘meaningful connectivity’. If this more ambitious metric was used to measure those online, far fewer people would be counted as connected.”

A4AI research

Research by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) in September 2019 suggested the cost of mobile data for consumers in low and middle-income countries had fallen across all regions.

Low-income countries saw the most improvement, a historic reversal with progress of poorer countries previously lagging behind middle-income countries, the organisation stated.

“The average cost for 1GB data as a percentage of average monthly income declined by 11%, from 5.8% of average monthly income in 2018 to 4.7% today. This means that among those countries covered in this survey, over 1 billion people live in a country where an entry level plan of 1GB of mobile data is not affordable. Across Africa, where internet data remains unaffordable for millions - particularly women - there was a particularly steep decline, with the cost of 1GB data dropping from 9% to 7.1% of average monthly income. This fall in cost brings internet access - a key driver of development and equal opportunity - within reach of millions more people. “

While important progress however, the cost of broadband is prohibitively high: if the average US earner paid 7.1% of their income for access, 1GB data would cost US$373 per month.

As more people, including more women, can afford to come online, national economies will grow. For every 1% increase in the number of people using mobile broadband, countries will see a 0.15% increase in GDP, according to the ITU.

Dhanaraj Thakur, Research Director of A4AI and Web Foundation, said: “Access to a meaningful internet connection means access to transformational and life-changing tools. This notable drop in costs, especially across Africa, will make it easier for millions around the world to benefit from internet access. While we welcome this progress, millions remain offline because they cannot afford the cost of data. Urgent action is required - failure to deliver affordable internet access will drive inequality as those offline are further pushed to the margins of society.”

According to A4AI falling broadband prices drove affordability in certain African countries. In Sierra Leone, the relative cost of 1GB data tumbled from 25.9% to 9.9% after the introduction of a number of more affordable data plans by the largest operator. In Burkina Faso, reduced prices halved the cost of 1GB from 14.8% to 7.8% of monthly income.

In countries such as Zimbabwe, a rise in incomes made broadband data more affordable, dropping relative cost from 19.8% to 10.1% of monthly income. It is important that these gains are not rolled back and indeed shape the trend towards increased affordable access, the organisation added.

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