Bridging the digital divide: affordable internet access for everyone

Each month, we will highlight a recent development, initiative or trend in the technology and SDGs landscape. In this month’s story, we focus on efforts to provide universal affordable internet access.

More than half the world is now online, according to statistics released by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in December 2018. But this figure hides a more complex picture: while in the developed world 80.9 per cent of the population is online, in the developing world just 45.3 per cent is. The ITU also reported that despite some progress, 800 million people in least developed countries are still not able to connect. What’s more, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the progress that policy is making to ensure people can access the internet is slowing – in fact, they had estimated that half the world would achieve internet access by 2017, a year earlier than achieved. Sonia Jorge, their Executive Director, explains this “digital divide” as follows: “the only reason we have 50 per cent online is because most of the developed world is so far ahead.”

There is a clear case for providing everyone with access to affordable internet. Its advocates argue that it will enable financial inclusion for example through mobile money transfer apps such as Paymee; reduce poverty by providing access to health, information and education services; and also increase economic growth. In 2016, the World Bank estimated (1) that increasing the percentage of the total population connected to the internet from 48 to 75 per cent would add US$2 trillion dollars per year to world GDP. In addition, Peter Robinson the President and CEO US Council for International Business has described the imperative as a “win-win for business and governments”, explaining that “if properly nurtured, digital connectivity can help spur social and economic betterment, while also creating business opportunities."

30 years since the world wide web was created, and with just over 10 years remaining to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we explore the initiatives aiming to secure a truly inclusive internet by overcoming the three important barriers of infrastructure, skills and costs.

Building the infrastructure for internet access

The right infrastructure is vital for individuals, organisations and nations to connect to the internet. Although subscriptions are increasing globally, high-speed internet connections are still largely out of reach for developing nations, according to the UN’s 2018 Sustainable Development Goals Report. Fortunately however, companies are actively developing new ways to deliver fast internet through the air rather than by laying down cables – something that could mean nations may soon no longer need to deploy costly infrastructure. For example, Google spin out Loon, has developed technology that beams the internet from helium-filled balloons suspended 20 kilometres in the air. Meanwhile Facebook has partnered with Airbus to explore high-altitude internet delivery following failed attempts to build drones for the task.

Generation Unlimited is a new global initiative helping 10 to 24 year olds successfully transition from education and training to employment and entrepreneurship. Recognizing that digital connectivity is the crucial first step towards this goal, part of their work focusses on bringing together companies and investors, alongside governments and NGOs, to invest in and address connectivity infrastructure gaps, find last mile connectivity solutions, and create new serviceable business models.

Lack of data can exacerbate a problem of a lack of infrastructure, with governments and organisations unable to identify where infrastructure should be deployed. UNICEF and its partners are aiming to address this for future generations through Project Connect, a new platform that brings together the private sector, academia and NGOs to map where schools are and how connected they are. Project Connect’s goal is to provide real-time data that can be used to monitor the quality of each school’s internet connectivity. The success of this project could mark an important step forward for the 346 million 15 to 24 year olds around the world currently estimated to be offline.

Upskilling people for a digital world

However, once online, young and old people must be digitally literate to find and share information and to take advantage of the full range of services and opportunities available. The Generation Unlimited initiative is also teaching young people the skills they need to use the web - something they see as vital given that young people embracing digital connectivity has been responsible for many of the innovations in the digital revolution.

For example, the YES! Digital Ecosystem is an open-access digital platform designed to allow marginalised young people develop their skills and employability through online courses. The programmes help to close technology and vocational skills gaps and build confidence, whilst also creating a virtual network of alumni who can help each other thrive in the world of work.

Making it cheaper to get online

Whilst the development of alternative technologies could lead to cost reductions in the longer term, currently the high cost associated with getting connected is still a significant barrier to entry for many worldwide.

In low- and middle- income countries, 1GB of data costs over 5% of what people earn per month whereas “affordable internet” should cost 2% or less of the average monthly income, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet. In 2018, the Alliance reported that global policies addressing affordability have slowed. They posit that the private sector and civil society need to support government in prioritising various efforts including the development of national broadband plans with concrete and realistic targets.

Shaping an inclusive internet

As outlined above, securing affordable access to the internet for all will have a profound and positive impact on the global economy and society. However, it’s important to recognise that access is just the beginning. Beyond this important milestone lie further challenges for individuals, organisations and nations - including ensuring digital equality, transparency, privacy and even democracy. These issues will require innovative thinking, action and collaboration from the full range of actors in this space.

Sustainable Development Goal 5B explicitly calls out the need to use ICT “to promote the empowerment of women”. Addressing socio-cultural inequalities in addition to the technical issues will be essential to ensure that women can not only access but also meaningfully use the internet. For countries such as Bangladesh, Rwanda and India that have the largest internet gender gaps in the world this might be particularly challenging. A policy brief written to inform the 2018 G20 summit called for an assessment of the global gender digital gap to drive effective policies that encourage adoption, and the collaborative promotion of women’s digital adoption from government, the private sector and civil society.

Such issues are also at the heart of the global #ForTheWeb campaign run by Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s The World Wide Web Foundation, that seeks to unite people around a free, open and safe web that everyone can use to improve their lives.

And in Europe, the Next Generation Internet initiative from the European Commisson provides an opportunity for the private sector, academia and civil society to shape a more human-centric, ethical and inclusive internet over the coming decade. The programme aims to encourage collaboration between actors in this space and provides funding for researchers and innovators.


(1) Melhem, Samia, ‘Harnessing the Internet for Development’, Weekly Knowledge Notes (Connections), World Bank Group, n.p., January 2016

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