Can you imagine only having access to the internet once every three months in a cyber cafe? Or only relying on your smartphone for all your browsing? Or waiting 30 minutes to download a 10-minute YouTube clip?
That’s the reality for much of the developing world today, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative of the World Wide Web Foundation, which releases its 2019 Affordability Report today.
As of the end of 2018, 50 percent of the world was online, but there are vast discrepancies in the quality of service people receive. For 2.3 billion people, a 1GB mobile broadband plan is unaffordable.
We spoke with A4AI’s Executive Director, Sonia N. Jorge, who is working to make meaningful internet access for all a reality. She told us what needs to happen next to ensure parity across the globe, and how the internet as we know it today—where English is still the lingua franca and the US central to its management—will change as a result. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
Tell us what the World Wide Web Foundation does.
The Web Foundation was founded in 2009 by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee to promote his vision of the web as a public good for everyone. That means working to make sure everyone has the opportunity to get online and that when they do, the web is a tool they can use to change their lives for the better. We use our research and policy expertise to influence the key decision-makers shaping the web’s future—principally governments and companies, but also civil society and internet users themselves.
And how did the Alliance for Affordable Internet come about?
In 2013 when A4AI was established, just 37 percent of the world’s population had access to the internet. In developing countries, less than a third of people were connected and in Africa just 12 percent were online.
The internet was already driving profound shifts in our societies, generating new opportunities to learn and earn, offering convenient tools to manage our daily lives, and helping people to connect and collaborate like never before. It was clear that those locked out of the digital revolution would bear a huge price and that the cost of being offline would only increase as the internet’s footprint grew.
And so A4AI was formed to drive down the costs of internet access and close this digital divide so that everyone can access the internet’s benefits. We’re a coalition of 90+ member organizations from across the private, public, and civil society sectors, all working to make the internet more affordable through policy and regulatory reform.
It’s not just about cost and access, but decent speeds of connectivity, right?
A4AI recently developed Meaningful Connectivity, a new standard that measures not only if someone has access to the internet, but the quality of connection they have. This standard looks at data speeds, the quantity of data people have, the devices they use and how often they can connect to the internet. Once people reach a certain level on all these factors, internet access becomes really powerful and they can use it in ways that are genuinely life-changing.
Policymakers need tools like this standard to measure and improve the quality of connectivity, otherwise we’ll remain in a world where the privileged have a gold-plated internet while everyone else has to get by on mediocre connectivity.
Has the situation improved across the globe since last year?
It’s a mixed picture. We’ve seen some good progress among low-income countries, with strong improvements on the Affordability Drivers Index (ADI), which we use to assess how well a country’s policy, regulatory, and market environment is positioned to lower industry costs. As a group, low-income countries improved at around 3x the speed of middle-income countries. This positive trend comes at the same time as data prices have fallen more quickly in low-income countries than elsewhere.
But while overall there was a slight improvement since last year, we’re still not seeing the level of policy change needed to put internet access within reach for the billions still kept offline by high costs. Unfortunately governments seem to be crossing their fingers and hoping that market forces will get citizens connected. With the rate of growth in the number of people coming online slowing, we know laissez-faire markets alone will not get us to universal access. We also need governments to adopt smart policies and commit to serious investment in the sector, including investments in infrastructure as well as digital skills and policy and regulatory frameworks, including community networks and public access options like free public Wi-Fi and telecenters to provide more choices for consumers.
You’ve worked all over the world, speak several languages, and have been instrumental in public policy and telecommunications/technology infrastructure change. What brought you to the Alliance for Affordable Internet?
Starting a project like A4AI was an incredible opportunity, and one that allowed me to focus on policy change with a purpose, a purpose that was fully aligned with my beliefs—that internet access is indeed a public good and therefore we must develop policy and regulatory frameworks that work for the public interest and aim to bring everyone online. This is crucial in the context of development, and digital technologies have a key role to play to support digital development across economies. I was also especially excited about leading a global partnership, one that brought all the stakeholders together to work towards a common goal. I was honored to be given this challenge and am proud of what we have accomplished since 2013.
Finally, what are the new targets for affordable internet access for all?
First, every single country should commit to an affordability threshold as a baseline target—people should be able to buy 1GB data for no more than 2 percent of average monthly income. This is just a first step towards internet affordability. With features like video calls, streaming, and rich content creation becoming core to people’s online experience, 1GB is the minimum amount of data most people need today. Costs must come down so that people’s creativity and productivity is not hampered by restrictive data packages.
Second, our Meaningful Connectivity standard should be adopted and endorsed by governments as well as organizations like the UN Broadband Commission so that we raise the bar for internet access.
Finally, we need to see the rate at which people are getting online speed up. Last year’s Affordability Report highlighted a steep decline in the growth of global internet access. It’s our task to reverse this trend so that more people can get online and access a world most of us can’t imagine living without.