Policy recommendations for thoughtful approaches towards meaningful, universal connectivity

5.1 Embed a focus on digital inclusion in broadband plans and digital economy efforts, paying attention to the challenges of marginalized communities
and vulnerable populations, particularly women and children.

Thoughtful approaches are needed that focus on digital inclusion and account for the nature of different types of current usage and adoption, and recognize that cultural barriers and social norms may be influencing non-adoption. These are approaches that place a primary focus on the digital inclusion of marginalized users and communities which are traditionally overlooked and underserved, including, but not limited to, individuals with disabilities, individuals who are low-income, and individuals who reside in rural or remote geographies, and including women and children. Policies (such as in national broadband plans) that focus on digital inclusion can start with simple changes of perspective, such as recognition of the “first billion” and “first-mile”, rather than “bottom billion” or “last-mile”, and can focus much more on both demand and supply issues to facilitation engagement, rather than solely considering infrastructure expansion dimensions.

5.2 Amplify efforts to improve digital skills – including basic digital skills – to help users, SMEs and public sector agencies make the most of digital opportunities, as well as skills to distinguish online disinformation and other threats to the right to information, and so empower Internet users to avoid becoming either victims or unwitting distributors of disinformation.

As noted above, digital skill gaps remain between age groups, income levels, sexes and educational attainment, and efforts to better develop digital skills (along with basic educational skills) are needed to ensure all members of a society can benefit from the digital economy. Furthermore, in efforts to improve the delivery of government services (and citizen adoption of those services), as well as in programmes to encourage more small and medium enterprises to expand their markets by going online, greater emphasis on digital skills-building is necessary, as well as agency and awareness-building of the risks posed by participating in the digital economy. Governments should also focus on conveying and fostering content in local languages as well as empowering citizens, particularly children, with digital skills to protect against online threats.

5.3 Add public access policies into universal access and service (UAS) initiatives and national broadband plans, such as ensuring UAS policies explicitly include sites and locations (such as libraries, community centres, and areas of public gathering) where low-cost internet access may be facilitated.

While national broadband plans and universal access directives continue to be adopted and implemented by countries around the world, a subset of universal access initiatives – public access policies – play an outsized role in ensuring underserved and under-resourced communities are able to benefit from internet connectivity as well. While some universal access initiatives embed network coverage obligations and/or targeted subsidies for network expansion, these programmes still may not lead to internet adoption and use because costs for some users may still be prohibitive, even if they are nominal or near-zero. For many users, only free-to-the-user options provide the opportunity and on-ramp to participate in the digital economy, and therefore public access programmes that support free internet access in public places, community centres, libraries, etc. remain a crucial way to disseminate access to information and the public internet.

5.4 Support effective and innovative spectrum policies to improve broadband availability for underserved and marginalized groups.

There are still significant pockets of populations and communities that have yet to benefit from communication access and efforts to reach those underserved individuals would be aided by considering effective and innovation in spectrum allocation. Improvements in spectrum use include ensuring a flexible regime that allows for spectrum repurposing and re-farming, particularly as new generations of communications technology become available and new applications of technology emerge, such as smart systems, Internet of Things and more. Additionally, innovations in spectrum management would enable underserved communities and other marginalized groups to develop their own connectivity solutions in situations where commercial retail service providers are failing to extend service to them, including encouraging governments and regulators to adopt support pro-investment spectrum policies. These include licensing sufficient amounts of coverage (e.g. sub-1GHz) and capacity (e.g. above 1 GHz) spectrum, use of license-exempt spectrum, providing exemptions for non-profit operators, normalizing transparency in the assignment of spectrum frequencies, and issuing long-term, technology-neutral licenses with a clear process of renewal.

5.5 Expand initiatives to map network coverage and infrastructure needs, developing priority lists for investment, including where subsidies are required

A lack of comprehensive and up-to-date market data on pricing and network infrastructure availability hampers the ability to better inform policy decisions, commercial investments and consumer choice. Furthermore, a lack of accurate network infrastructure not only hampers efforts to expand access, but also diminishes the ability of the international community to leverage digital infrastructure to provide humanitarian and disaster support.

One approach that would provide policy makers, investors, service providers and entrepreneurs with accurate information to base allocative resource decisions would be in making more telecommunications infrastructure data available to the public in a model similar to the open government data approach that has been championed by many organizations and governments. Such an “Open Telecom Data” approach covering the extent of various elements of network infrastructure (spectrum assignments, terrestrial fibre and points of presence, mobile towers and network coverage) as well as pricing in key aspects of the telecom value chain beyond retail (backhaul, international gateway) would only serve to accelerate deployments and adoption.

5.6 Include measures to protect children online in national broadband plans.

Children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the digital economy, and all players in the connectivity ecosystem can play greater roles in ensure the safety and security of children as they engage online.

5.7 Support international and national efforts to provide broadband connectivity to refugees and displaced individuals

Refugees and displaced individuals are in particularly dire need of basic services and information to assist them in their survival. Communication, and communications technology such as broadband internet, play a critical role in helping refugees access basic services, connect to information about their local, national and global communities, communicate with loved ones and obtain vital information to aid in their survival. There are now more than 70 million refugees around the world, many of whom are in rural areas with limited infrastructure, facing prohibitively high access fees, or lacking in internet-enabled devices. These people in urgent need of connectivity. While various international and national efforts are underway to enhance access to these communities, more multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed to accelerate progress.

5.8 Include a focus on limiting environmental impacts and addressing climate change in national broadband plans

The ICT sector and digital economy initiatives must play a central role in global efforts to curb environmental impacts and address climate change. Including a focus on these issues in national broadband plans is a first step in building effective responses. Other measures include supporting the deployment of renewable energy solutions to substitute for carbon-emitting power generation for off-grid mobile towers, implementing concrete roadmaps and strategies for deep decarbonization, ensuring digitalization and climate strategies are aligned, and creating and adopting digital tools that focus on decarbonization.

5.9 Encourage and evaluate both sustaining, as well as disruptive ICT innovations across technologies, business models, and regulations

The characteristics of the individuals and communities in the next 49% are different from the individuals who were the early adopters of the internet. As such, many of the policies, products and services, techniques and processes that were successful in facilitating online access and participation by the first 51% of users will not be appropriate or effective in supporting the next 49% of users’ paths to participating in the digital economy. Some of these methods will need to be adjusted and tweaked, through the process of sustaining innovation. In other cases, completely new approaches may be needed – including those that threaten to displace existing dynamics regarding products, services and markets. Both should be encouraged and continuously evaluated.

5.10 Promote the affordability of broadband by adopting appropriate policy and regulation

Sector-specific telecommunications taxes, fees and other levies have a significant impact on affordability of ICT services and lead to a reduced take-up of broadband. Research has also demonstrated that sector-specific taxes can have a counterproductive effect, reducing overall tax intake because of slowing economic growth and reduced investment.