The secret formula for bridging the digital divide? It’s 1 for 2, claims study

Without urgent action, the international community will be 22 years late in fulfilling its pledge to bring affordable internet access to the world’s poorest countries, denying hundreds of millions of people access to online education, health services and a political voice, a report claims.

When they met in New York last September to agree the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will underpin the development agenda for the next 15 years, the UN’s 193 member states agreed to “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020”.

But according to a study by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), progress on meeting the internet access goal is so slow that, on current trends, the world’s least developed countries will not achieve it until 2042. The reports defines universal access as at least 90% internet penetration.

At the moment, more than 4 billion people – 56% of the global population, mostly women – are not using the internet.

The report argues that an entire generation will lose out on the opportunities offered by the net unless more is done, and calls on the UN to accelerate progress by bringing down broadband prices.

Even in countries that have managed to get broadband costs down to the UN-agreed threshold of 5% of average national income for 500MB of mobile data a month, levels of poverty and income inequality mean that women and the poor are often excluded from the digital revolution.

The study says the UN should rethink its measure of “affordable internet”, because 70% of people in the world’s least-developed countries simply cannot afford to pay for a basic monthly 500MB broadband plan.

Internet access in the LDCs

If the world is to hit the target, says A4AI, it needs to commit to a more ambitious affordability agenda: 1GB of mobile broadband data priced at 2% or less of average monthly income.

According to the report, the new target – dubbed “1 for 2” – would be the best and quickest way to speed up progress and get hundreds of millions of marginalised people online. However, the alliance said it will take more than lower prices to connect those left behind, and urges governments to provide free or subsidised public access as well as digital education.

The alliance – whose members include Google, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, the UK Department for International Development and its US counterpart, USAid – seeks to place the internet within the reach of everyone on the planet.

Sonia Jorge, A4AI’s executive director, said the report is a wake-up call to policymakers, business leaders and civil society groups all over the world.

“If we are serious about achieving universal access by 2020, we need to condense almost 30 years’ worth of work into the next five years,” she said.

“Immediate, collaborative action is required – let’s work together to build open and competitive markets that can drive prices down to 2% or less of monthly incomes, while creating innovative public access programmes to reach those that market forces can’t.”

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