I was privileged to be a speaker in the 2014 IGF in Istanbul, Turkey in a panel on Policies for promoting broadband access in developing countries.
We realize that while technological solutions are advancing rapidly, policy and regulations remain a significant barrier to affordable internet especially in the developing world.
Three in five of the world’s people are not connected to the Internet. In developing countries only 31 percent of people are online; and in the world’s 49 least developed countries, less than 10% have Internet access.
Some policies for reducing cost of broadband and increasing access in Africa have been suggested over the years. I will discuss some of them
Kenya launched it’s broadband strategy in 2013. The bold document projected to roll Internet in all schools and hospitals by year 2017, and increase the speeds for broadband in urban areas by 2017 to 2GBPS and 500MBPS in rural areas. Some of the areas I identified that need more consideration in policy development are:
- Proper use and monitoring of Universal Service Funds (USF). We need better management of USF and community involvement in how the USF are used. The USF should not only be used to provide infrastructure investments in under-served regions, but also promote digital literacy.Digital literacy will ensure the community knows the value of the Internet and how it can improve their lives. Political goodwill. In Kenya, USF was formed under an act of parliament in 2009, but the USF management board was inaugurated in July 2014. Operators are required to pay upto 0.5 per cent of their annual turnover to the USF kitty. The snail pace in implementing USF ensures the dream for broadband access to the masses is delayed, and even deferred. Transparent and consultative processes, incorporating stakeholder inputs and priorities is a must for the success of the USF. Currently service providers are not happy they were not included in the management of the funds. Internet end user representatives like consumer federation of Kenya, and Internet Society should also be part of the team that advises on how the USF should be used.
- Reduced luxury tax on infrastructure equipment, end user devices, and services especially in undeserved regions. Those living below the UN poverty index of $2/day have other priorities like food, and health. Cost of broadband is as high as 90% of income on population with low per capita income. According to a report by Alliance for Affordable Internet ( A4AI), the key to affordability is the policy and regulatory environment that shapes the different actors in the market. Reforms to make markets more open, competitive and socially efficient are often the best and quickest way to drive prices down and increase broadband use.
- License Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) who ride on existing infrastructure from competitors. This reduces investment capital outlay by new players while increasing broadband coverage. In 2014, Kenya licensed two MVNOs.
- Efficient spectrum management. Open, transparent, and fair allocation and licensing mechanism.
- Foster Innovation, like the use of TV white space, and other innovations. License Plain FREE community internet service in least privileged areas. An example is setting up free MESH networks and connecting the communities to local community servers with open access content like Wikipedia, open streetmaps, OwnCloud storage, news, local agricultural content, free e-books, municipal portals, chartrooms, and a directory for all these content.
- Sharing of resources by service providers. Masts, fiber cable, e.t.c. The end user will foot the bill if every provider has to compete laying infrastructure that has less than 10% utilization overall. Allow service providers to use infrastructure setup through taxpayers money. This is more so through the legacy government owned telecommunication monopolies that litter the landscape across Africa. An example is the National Fiber Optic Cable (NOFBI) laid across Kenya by the government with a target of 80% reach. It is not fully utilized. Private sector can make use of these resources instead of laying parallel infrastructure. In the broadband strategy, the government has pledged to increase the coverage of NOFBI by an additional 30,000KMs
- Streamlined processes for infrastructure deployment. Efficient and effective access to public rights of way Coordinated with other infrastructure projects (fiber or duct laid during road works)
- Establish IXPs. local and/or regional internet exchange point (IXP), and have data caching. AXIS project in Africa though partnership of ISOC and AU has already setup about 4 IXPs and held training across the continent.
- Energy. There cannot be access without affordable sustainable electricity. Electricity is very expensive per kilowatt in developing countries. This cost is usually passed down to users. Developing countries should seriously look for permanent ways of solving their perennial energy problems. Computer laboratories can be powered through solar and wind energy.
- Content. Develop policies that support relevant local content that users will feel the need to consume. Most societies have solved the content problem to a greater extend.
- Data collection of key indicators to measure effectiveness of the strategies implemented.
- Move from talking to acting. Concrete policies and better regulation and monitoring. All these are possible through collaboration and improved relationships between the business, governments and local communities.