Some Three Ways to Provide Internet Access to the Developing World

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  • 5 years ago
  • Posted: March 10, 2015 at 4:01 pm

The adoption of mobile has exploded over the past decade. The mobile phone revolution provides numerous benefits including positive effects on economic development, entrepreneurship, education, and health care. New programs in both the developed and undeveloped world have had success. But, these advances obscure challenges towards a long-term goal of universal Internet availability. For me, three things stand out when it involves factors precluding the estimated 4.2 billion people from accessing the internet, which are of an economic and political nature.

Some hindrances to Internet Access

In many countries – even among some of the world’s largest economies – there is a gap in Internet adoption between rural and urban areas. A lack of infrastructure is responsible in many cases for this divide. Especially in the lack of, fiber optic lines, cell towers, Internet routers, wireless spectrum, and reliable electricity can inhibit the proliferation of the internet.

Also, there is considerable variation in Internet adoption among age groups. Seniors in many countries are much less likely to use the Internet. Many people particularly in rural areas lack literacy in addition to a general understanding of how to use a computer. Both factors create obstacles for prospective new Internet users.

Many non-Internet users are also fearful of the technology. There is a general anxiety associated with learning how to use the Internet. In surveys, some also describe fear about 21st century threats like, computer viruses, hacking, surveillance, or identity theft, which are all valid, but the fact that I can get hit by random stone should not stop me from taking a walk, aye!
So which policies are there to mitigate the digital divide?

– Zero rating services

The lack of disposable income is a major factor that prevents many from gaining Internet access. Users must also pay for data in addition to the cost of a device (which is quite peeving here in Kenya). Zero rating services circumvent this barrier by providing access to applications that have no associated data costs. For instance Wikipedia has a zero rated version of their app available, which is free to use. This practice has huge potential to provide the benefits of the Internet to all people. Broadband access policies have in recent years occupied a prime spot in digital divide discussions. Around 45 percent of mobile operators around the world offer some type of zero rating services.

But at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul, 2014, an increasingly common but oft-overlooked aspect of the debate bubbled up to the surface: zero-rating. The practice involves mobile carriers, through a prior agreement with specific content providers, offering free mobile data to allow customers to access particular online content or services at no additional cost. I should note that the most prevalent zero-rated programs involve giant US-based providers such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, which makes it more contentious as it could also pose a threat to local content development. The proponents of zero-rating contend that it is a competitive tool for introducing both Internet access and relevant online content to low-income communities. The fact that it spurs increased demand for Internet connectivity, it could also help carriers achieve the scale they need to invest in better networks, potentially allowing them to provide Internet access at a lower price (Safaricom’s recent data plan was Pharaonic, at best). Fresh industry studies appear to substantiate some of these claims, but the correlation between increased mobile data subscription and zero-rated programs have yet to be fully quantified.

Equally, there is a lack of concrete data to support counterclaims that such schemes might prompt users to drop their data plans and use zero-rating as a substitute for Internet access. But such risks may be slim as it is in carriers’ interest, if they are to convert people to full data subscribers, to offer these only for a fixed period. Indeed, keeping these temporary would help to assuage fears that the service is discouraging Internet users from realizing the full value of the Internet.

 

-Untightening the tax noose

Several countries have “connectivity taxes” on mobile and fixed Internet connections. These taxes drive up costs for consumers, which can make the Internet unaffordable for many families. In some cases it also reduces the incentives for Internet Service Providers to make infrastructure investments in undeserved areas. Research has shown that reducing these types of taxes can increase the number of Internet users. Reducing taxes on mobile service providers and equipment also would boost Internet usage and thereby improve access to the digital economy. Quite obviously, half of the world’s unconnected (2.2 of the 4.3 billion) reside in China and India so those countries deserve special attention in terms of the need to improve Internet access and content. Addressing cost barriers, perhaps through zero rating programs, and providing diverse and uncensored content would go a long way toward reducing their digital divide. Those steps would bring their residents more closely to the technology era and provide access to valuable tools for economic development, social engagement, and public expression. Here are some facts and figures for your consideration- Global income statistics reveal that almost one-quarter of the world lives at a subsistence level on less than $1.25 per day. The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative estimates that about 1.6 billion people fall below that threshold and live in extreme poverty. Around half of these individuals reside in South Asia and 29 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa. So it makes sense to reduce taxes to such things-people have access to life-improving knowledge, which is essential in Twenty-First Century economics, especially in internet-enabled devices. However, data charges will remain expensive. It is costly for users to access data and the more they use their phone, the more expensive it is going to be. And with video services coming online, data access fees likely will remain high in the near future.

-Content diversification

English is the primary language of the Internet. This excludes millions of educated people who could use the Internet if content were available in their native tongue. Expanding the type of content on the Internet would also increase its attractiveness for people around the world. An instance would be Ghana’s CocoaLink project, which provides expert information to farmers through text messages. Useful services like these provide an incentive for new users.

The number of Internet users increases every year by hundreds of millions of people. However, the percent of worldwide Internet penetration declined in 2013 from recent peaks. Fortunately there are a number of options available to governments who seek to mitigate barriers to Internet access for their poorest citizens. New policies are necessary to make sure that all people regardless of the socio-economic status have access to the benefits of the Internet. Digital divide: Improving Internet access in the developing world. The value of diverse content is essential in internet growth because having diverse content represents another way to encourage people to use digital services. For example, in the early days of desktop computing, having programs such as email, word processing, and spreadsheet management encouraged people to use computers. Once they mastered those programs, it was easy for them to find other software that appealed to them and enabled them to become more productive and efficient.

What is your opinion on the topic?
Stefan Wolf
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