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March 31, 2021updated 07 Apr 2021 10:35am

Covid-19 calls for renewed focus on universal internet access

The pandemic has prompted calls for increased policy action and investment in universal internet access, with UN goals expected to be missed by 'a wide margin'.

By Amy Borrett

The pandemic has made the injustice of unequal internet access, both within and between countries, glaringly apparent. But while universal access is an explicit aim of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, progress has been slow and its targets are expected to be missed. Covid-19 has prompted calls for revived investment in expanding internet coverage and the skills required to use it – investment that proponents argue would pay for itself many times over.

Slow progress on universal internet access

The United Nations has made internet access an explicit aim of its Sustainable Development Goals: target 9c of the SDGs is to provide ‘universal access to information and communications technology‘.

In 2015, the UN set a target of “significantly [increasing] access to information and communications technology and [striving] to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least-developed countries by 2020”. And the ITU’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, which was established in 2010 to help realise target 9c, aims to achieve 75% global broadband penetration by 2025, including 35% for the least-developed economies.

But researchers at the World Wide Web Foundation, established by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, last year estimated that both these targets will be missed. “Low and middle-income countries have yet to enter a rapid growth phase [for internet access] and may be at risk of moving into a slow growth phase well before approaching a point of universal access,” the researchers wrote. “This is worrying since 50% of the world that is still offline is mostly from these countries. If we adopt the UN position that the internet is a human right, then this access gap is profoundly significant.”

This slow progress, combined with the pandemic, has prompted calls for a renewed focus on universal access. “The digital divide won’t disappear once this crisis is over,” Berners-Lee wrote last year. “The ever-quickening march to digitisation has become a sprint. We must make sure those currently in the slow lane have the means to catch up. Otherwise, billions will be left behind in the dust.”

“Closing the digital divide by 2030 should be one of the primary global policy priorities,” wrote former UK prime minister Tony Blair, in the foreword to a report on universal access from his think tank, the TBI.

The global cost of universal internet access

Achieving universal access will not be cheap. The ITU estimates that it will require $428bn in investment – the equivalent of the annual GDP of South Africa – between now and 2030. Around one-third of this needs to come from the public sector, the ITU estimates, as governments will need to stimulate the demand necessary to incentivise the private sector to make the necessary investments in infrastructure.

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But, despite the substantial infrastructure requirements, it is demand-side constraints that present the biggest barriers to universal internet access. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, digital skills and affordability are cited as the biggest barrier to internet use for more than half of mobile users, according to data from the GSMA Intelligence Survey.

“What we’re seeing in many countries, is that sometimes there is the infrastructure there, but people are still not using the internet,” says Roxanne Bamford, policy lead at the TBI. “It’s not just about having the infrastructure in place, it’s about having access to affordable devices, affordable data, also having the skills to access and take advantage of all the opportunities on the internet and having locally relevant content.”

But despite the heavy costs, advocates argue that investing in universal access would pay for itself many times over – and not just for the countries whose infrastructure would be improved.

Businesses in developed economies would be able to tap into huge new markets of consumers, says Bamford, pointing to China as an example of a country that has grasped the magnitude of the potential economic benefits. “Bringing half the world online also represents huge opportunities for businesses in terms of tapping into a workforce that’s more diverse and bringing on new talent as well,” she says. “It’s about the flow of ideas; what does it mean for innovation if suddenly half of the world comes online?” 

Another motivation is the growing need for nations to band together to preserve a free and open internet, says Benedict Macon-Cooney, head of the science and innovation unit at the TBI. “There are economic benefits to this, which are for everyone, but there’s also a geopolitical argument,” he says. “China has been building a lot of this infrastructure and this has been a call to arms in some ways for Western liberal democracies around the world to counteract some of the geopolitical issues that poses.”

For developing regions too, the economic benefits that far outweigh the costs. In regions like East Asia and the Pacific, the economic gains amount to more than 32 times the cost, according to analysis by the TBI.

A new digital model of international development

The potential benefits of universal internet access are so great, say proponents, that traditional models of economic development, and how it can be supported, need to be rethought.

While all the original nuts and bolts of traditional models of international development – education, health, physical infrastructure – are still important, the internet provides an “extra layer and connectivity with the world”, says Macon-Cooney.

“The traditional manufacturing ladder that nations went through, particularly in South-east Asia, is getting increasingly hard to do,” he says. “The modern development perspective is that to be connected into the markets you need to be internet-first and build a connected nation that has all the access to frontier technologies and can then upend [areas like] education and health.”

Singapore and South Korea are two success stories for rapid tech-driven economic development, averaging growth in excess of 8% between 1970 and 2000. Doubling down on the digital economy could unlock similarly rapid development for some of the world’s poorest countries today, with TBI analysis estimating that universal internet access could add an average of almost 4% to the annual GDP of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next decade.

Investment to provide meaningful connectivity fuels progress across the sustainable development themes, says Teddy Woodhouse, research manager for the Alliance for the Affordable Internet programme at the World Wide Web Foundation.

“There’s so much to be gained, both economically and socially, from digitisation at a societal level. It’s going to change the way that countries continue to grow in the future,” he says. “Countries that want to be globally competitive need to digitise [and] the best way to make yourself digitally relevant is to be digitally inclusive and to build your digital economy at scale.”

Without action, however, the risk is that existing inequalities will be entrenched and large parts of the global population will be excluded from economic benefits, Woodhouse adds. “What we really want to avoid is that the internet becomes kind of the new fault line of inequality in the world so that those who have internet access are able to continue to advance their own lives and those who don’t get left behind.”

Home page image by I Am Zews/Shutterstock.

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