While academics and economists quibble over the developmental benefits of internet access and whether or not online communications should be a human right the goal of achieving access for all is still a long way off. According to a report presented at the ICT4D (ICT for Development) Conference in Cape Town today, the more than two billion people living on less than $2 a day around the world population would have to spend more than 40% of their monthly income in order to access broadband – making it unaffordable for most.
In Zambia, the report notes, 10.4million people live below the poverty line and a basic fixed line broadband connection would cost 134.9% of their monthly income. Mobile access is somewhat cheaper, but at more than a third of income still unaffordable.
The report was presented by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), which is supported by Google, the Omidyar Network, the UK’s Department for International Development and USAID.
The UN Broadband Commission for Digital Engagement has a global target that everyone should be able to access a broadband connection of some sort for less than 5% of their country’s average earnings per month by 2015. South Africa’s new broadband policy – SA Connect – which was gazetted on Friday says broadband access should cost less than half of that, with a target of 2.5% of the national average income.
The report authors say that contrary to perception, the ‘digital divide’ is bigger in middle income countries than it is in developing nations.
We found that many of these countries serve high-end broadband customers in urban areas quite well. However, poorer communities in urban and rural areas remain under-served. Demand is weak due to limited disposable income, low levels of digital literacy and limited relevant content. In addition, competition is limited giving network operators little reason to invest in new markets. These mechanisms reinforce each other, creating an “access trap”…
South Africa scored 46.5% on the report”s Affordability Index, putting us in twelfth position out of 46 countries surveyed for the cost of access. That’s behind Morocco and Mauritius, but just ahead of Kenya and Nigeria in terms of African countries featured in the report. The good news is that the ITU recently found that other countries have seen a marked reduction in access costs following the implementation of a national broadband policy, and a significant rise in GDP too.
Interestingly, the report is keen to highlight that increased competition in broadband markets is “not a silver bullet”. The private sector will and cannot solve the issues without strong political engagement and good regulation.