People in low- and middle-income countries are gaining access to the internet more slowly because progress has stagnated on policies to make going online more affordable.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet, a not-for-profit organisation based in Washington DC in the United States, had previously forecast that half of the world’s population would be online by now. But its 2018 Affordability Report, issued on October 22, estimates the milestone would not be reached until mid-2019.

Sonia Jorge, the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s executive director, stressed the human impact of the delay. “People that don’t have access to the internet can’t wait to have it,” she said.

The importance of internet access is enshrined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which urge universal internet access by 2020. In January this year, the UN said that all 47 least developed countries were on track to deploy 3G mobile networks covering over 60% of their population by that time.

However, more than two billion people live in countries where 1GB of mobile data is unaffordable to those on average salaries. In many low- and middle-income countries, 1GB of data costs more than 5% of monthly income, the report warned, with the Alliance for Affordable Internet defining affordability as 2% or less.

National policies

The Alliance for Affordable Internet’s report scored national policies on their effectiveness in creating affordable internet access and found that progress on this is slowing. Policy scores increased by just 1% since last year, which is the slowest annual improvement in the five years of the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s coverage.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet offers guiding principles for national internet frameworks. For example, encouraging internet service providers to share infrastructure can reduce overhead costs by up to 45%, the report says.

Jorge compared countries without national guidelines to a disorganised circus. “Sometimes the acts come together and they work very well, at other times they don’t,” she explained.

One important part of the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s policy advice is the creation of Universal Service and Access Funds, which help pay for internet supply to underserved areas and groups. However, some private sector organisations that are required to contribute to Universal Service and Access Funds resist doing so, the report said, because the funds have had mixed success.

“USAFs have in some cases been quite ineffective,” Jorge admitted. “Quite a lot of resources have been abused.”

Barriers to internet access

Michele Marius, director of Jamaica-based information and communication technology and telecommunications advisors ICT Pulse, called slowing rates of internet access “quite worrying”.

“It is unlikely that there will be any significant change or movement in internet adoption by most of the countries surveyed in order to meet the 2020 goals,” Marius observed.

Like the report, Marius stressed the need for regulators to address financial losses that telecom companies typically incur in delivering services to poor areas. She added that natural disasters, like floods, boost the cost of internet access in Small Islands Developing States.

The barriers faced by these companies include the need to comply with standards, such as the GSM/3GPP wireless communication standard, and high taxes and fees.

“Until these burdens are reduced and governments provide the right type of support to areas where markets are too small, isolated and in very low income areas, the problem will persist,” said Mike Jensen, internet access specialist at the Alliance for Affordable Internet member organisation.

This urgency is compounded by the fact that more and more government services are moving online, which could shut groups without internet access out from political activities and representation. “We have the responsibility to ensure that those that are marginalised in societies are not further excluded because of this situation,” said Jorge.

This article first appeared on SciDev Net.