Alliance for Cheap Internet Access

Alliance for Affordable Internet, a global initiative to make Internet more affordable and accessible in developing countries, has been launched recently in Abuja

|  By Maureen Chigbo  |  Oct. 21, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

AFRICA and other developing countries where people do not have access to affordable internet services now have cause to smile. A new global initiative – Alliance for Affordable Internet, A4AI, was launched in Abuja, October 7, to ensure that 90 percent of the 1.1 billion households who are not connected to the Internet in the developing world have access to affordable internet services. A global group of both private and public sector players are involved in the alliance. The group include Google, Omidyar Network, United Kingdom  DFID, USAID,  a host of governments, technology companies and civil society organisations from developed and developing countries. They are backed by Tim Berners-Lee, Web inventor.

Bitange Ndemo

Alliance for Affordable Internet is a coalition to lead policy and regulatory reform and spur action to drive down artificially high internet prices in developing countries. By advocating for open, competitive and innovative broadband markets, A4AI aims to help access prices fall to below five percent of monthly income worldwide, a target set by the UN Broadband Commission. Reaching this goal can help to connect the two-thirds of the world that is presently not connected to the internet and make universal access a reality.

This new initiative is coming at a time that the International Telecommunications Union, ITU, report on ICT facts and figures 2013 on Internet consumption in the developing world is worrisome. For instance, in the developing world, 31 percent of the population is online compared with 77 percent in the developed world. In Africa, 16 percent of the people are using the Internet – only half the penetration rate of Asia and the Pacific.Between 2009 and 2013, Internet penetration in households has grown fastest in Africa, with annual growth of 27 percent, followed by 15 percent annual growth in Asia and the Pacific, the Arab States and the CIS. The gender gap is more pronounced in the developing world, where 16 percent fewer women than men use the Internet, compared with only two percent fewer women than men in the developed world. A recent report from Intel suggests that women are 43 percent less likely to have access to the internet in sub-Saharan Africa, 33 percent in South Asia, and 34 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Africa, less than 10 percent of fixed (wired) broadband subscriptions offer speeds of at least 2 Mbit/s. This is also the case of several countries in Asia and the Pacific, the Americas and some Arab States.  Over the past five years, fixed-broadband prices as a share of GNI per capita dropped by 82 percent. By 2012, fixed- broadband prices represented 1.7 percent of monthly GNI p.c. in developed countries. In developing countries, fixed- broadband services remain expensive, accounting for 30.1 percent of average monthly incomes.

Ory Okolloh
Ory Okolloh

Perhaps the gloomy statistics explains why more than 30 A4AI members try to turn around the situation by reaching across boundaries of geography, industry, and organisations including governments, companies, and civil society organisations from both the developed and developing countries. Members share a belief that policy reform, underpinned by robust research and genuine knowledge-sharing, is one of the best ways to unlock rapid gains in internet penetration rates.

The Alliance was initiated by the World Wide Web Foundation and its honorary chairperson is Bitange Ndemo, immediate former permanent secretary of Kenya’s ministry of Information and Communications, who is widely regarded as the father of Broadband in Kenya. A4AI has a strong focus on action and announced the plans on October 7, at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation’s annual forum in Abuja, Nigeria, witnessed by communications ministers, policy makers and industry leaders from around the globe.

The Alliance will begin in-country engagements with three to four states by the end of 2013, expanding to at least twelve countries by the end of 2015. Members are committed to a set of policy best practices that will guide advocacy work at the international level. Key policy levers to drive prices down include allowing innovative allocation of spectrum, promoting infrastructure sharing, and increasing transparency and public participation in regulatory decisions. A4AI will produce an annual ‘Affordability Report’, with the first edition being unveiled in December 2013.

Rajiv Shah

Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, said: “The reason for the Alliance is simple – the majority of the world’s people are still not online, usually because they can’t afford to be. In Mozambique, for example, a recent study showed that using just 1GB of data can cost well over two months wages for the average citizen. The result of high prices is a widening digital divide that slows progress in vital areas such as health, education and science. Yet with the advent of affordable smartphones, new undersea cables and innovations in wireless spectrum usage, there is simply no good reason for the digital divide to continue. The real bottleneck now is anti-competitive policies and regulations that keep prices unaffordable. The Alliance is about removing that barrier and helping as many as possible to get online at reasonable cost.”

Ndemo, honorary chairperson of A4AI, added: “In Kenya, we saw the number of internet users more than double in a single year after we liberalised markets. Now, we need to spark the same revolution on broadband costs and access, not only in my country but around the world. To achieve this, we will use our combined voices, leadership and expertise to press for fair, competitive and socially responsible markets.”

Some of the global sponsors are of the view that the idea of A4AI is ripe. Jennifer Haroon, access principal at Google, said: “Nearly two out of every three people don’t have access to the Internet – this is a massive challenge that can’t easily be solved by a single solution or player. The world needs technical innovation and vision to bring more people online, but we also need a strong policy foundation that allows new ideas to flourish. By working alongside Alliance partners, we can help to lay the groundwork needed to drive innovation and bring the power of the Internet to more people.”

Tim Unwin

Ory Okolloh, director of investments, Omidyar Network, added: “The lack of affordable internet access in emerging markets is a key barrier to large-scale innovation, which in turn, stifles social and economic advancement. Omidyar Network is delighted to help lead the formation of the Alliance for Affordable Internet to address this problem. The Alliance has the potential to help millions of people in the developing world come online, unlocking opportunities for them to access information and services that can meaningfully improve their lives.”

Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID, said: “The growing digital divide is a global issue that can only be tackled collaboratively, and we are thrilled to be working with the diverse and committed group of the Alliance for Affordable Internet to enable even the most remote and impoverished communities to access the wealth of knowledge and connection that exists in the digital world.”

According to Tim Unwin, a professor and secretary general, Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation: “In a world where information sharing and communication is increasingly dominated by the internet, it is essential that everyone should have access to it at prices they can afford. The rapid expansion of all types of ICTs is nevertheless currently leading to ever-greater inequalities in the world, and so the creation of the Alliance for Affordable Internet is timely and important. By working together in carefully crafted partnerships, we can seek to redress this balance and turn rhetoric into reality.”