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How to fix the global slowdown in broadband rollout: Redefine what broadband means

From now until 2025, let's call it 'meaningful universal connectivity'

Wondered why all those government initiatives to expand broadband internet provision into poor or remote areas never seem to come to fruition? It's because we've been misdefining what broadband means all along.

A report (PDF) by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development insists that when governments systematically roll out internet services across their countries, they should focus less on the usual ways of evaluating broadband (e.g. throughput speed) and more on "thoughtful approaches towards meaningful universal connectivity".

The report outlines a set of worthy policy recommendations on this theme. Digital inclusion should mean including marginalised communities, refugees and displaced persons. Improve citizens' digital and literacy skills. Draw up public access policies. Protect children online. Limit the environmental impact. Promote affordability through regulation.

All fine stuff, no question. However, a more cynical interpretation might be that the commission is suggesting alternative ways of evaluating what counts as good-enough internet access since it is likely to miss its own broadband rollout targets by 2025.

Advocacy Target 2, for example, states: "By 2025, entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries at less than 2 per cent of monthly gross national income (GNI) per capita." Unfortunately, current ITU data from 99 countries indicates that only 31 of them met the "1 for 2" (1Gbit data for 2 per cent of income) affordability threshold. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there were areas in which 1Gbit of data for the poorest 20 per cent of the population would cost 40 per cent of their monthly income.

Target 4 projects that 60 per cent of youth and adults should have at least a basic level of digital skill by 2025, yet the current figure is still around half that.

Target 7 concerns gender equality, which seems as lopsided as ever. Despite some improvement in the number of women using a mobile phone in low and middle-income countries, it was found that in South Asia women are 28 per cent less likely than men to own a handset and 58 per cent less likely to use mobile internet at all.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that defining broadband homogeneously as a fixed line leading to a building is no longer a realistic interpretation for many. Mobile broadband should in principle be easier to roll out, and it is getting better, quickly. Last year, 4G overtook 2G as the world's leading mobile technology, surpassed half of all global mobile connections this year, and is expected to peak at 62 per cent of all mobile connections by 2023.

For UNESCO's director-general Audrey Azoulay, it naturally all comes down to poor education: "The main factor preventing people in developing countries from using mobile internet is not affordability but poor literacy and digital skills."

Whereas in the first world, social media is dominated by precisely such. ®

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