Thoughtful Approaches Towards Meaningful Universal Connectivity
In 2019, the world crossed a number of major thresholds in global internet adoption. Back in 1969, when the very first data packets were transmitted over what is now known as the internet, the network comprised just four network nodes at US universities. Today, the latest data estimate 21.7 billion connected devices – and growing fast. And whereas the first data packets were only a few kilobits, today on average over 74,500 GB of data are sent over the internet every single second.
According to ITU, 2019 marks the first full year when more than half of the world has begun to participate online in the global digital economy. This year also marks the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web, and 25 years since the first e-commerce transaction.
Fifty years on, the internet’s growth is maturing. Hundreds of millions of new users still are coming online every year, but overall growth is slowing, both as a function of the large existing user base, and because of significant challenges in reaching those not yet connected.
There has also been a realization that those individuals who are online do not necessarily fit into neat binary statistical categories (ie. users vs non-users). Instead, we observe a wide range of ways that individuals are interacting with, and benefiting from, the internet.
At the same time, there is a growing recognition of the downsides and potential risks of technology adoption, particularly for more vulnerable populations including women and children, who are
at risk of cyber stalking, online aggression and hate speech, or internet-enabled child abuse, exploitation, or bullying.
The internet is at a crossroads. Growing acknowledgement of the challenges and risks highlights the need for more targeted policy and regulation, as well as new business approaches and industry initiatives aimed at curbing unintended effects and/or negative outcomes of internet adoption.
And yet in many respects the benefits of internet connectivity have never been greater. Broadband connectivity does not merely transform individual human potential, it also underpins national efforts to develop knowledge economies, foster digital transformation in government services and digital transition across economic sectors, expand opportunities for enterprises, and provide greater value for citizens and consumers.
Broadband connectivity is also widely recognized as a critical enabler of efforts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The importance of digital technologies in international development efforts was emphasized by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which issued its findings earlier this year.
For nearly a decade now, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has been advocating for policies and programmes to expand access and adoption of high-speed, high-capacity broadband connections, so that the entire world can take advantage of the benefits that broadband can offer.
Meaningful universal connectivity
The concept of ‘meaningful universal connectivity’ has emerged as the focus of efforts to promote the benefits of online participation while mitigating the potential downsides of digital connectivity. It encompasses broadband adoption that is not just available, accessible, relevant and affordable, but that is also safe, trusted, empowering users and leading to positive impact.
Successful approaches to delivering meaningful universal connectivity are cognizant of the nuances that characterize barriers to access at local and regional levels. Internet users are as diverse as the global population itself. Users are not simply online or offline, but rather take myriad strategies to engage in the digital economy.
‘Meaningful universal connectivity’ strategies also recognize that non-technology and non-economic issues play a central role in decisions to participate online or not, such as lack of digital skills, linguistic and literacy barriers, social norms, and cultural attitudes.
This report reflects on the policies and recommendations that have made an impact in reaching the 51% adoption threshold, and considers different approaches that may better address the needs of the next 49%, including measures to ensure current internet users continue to see net positive returns from participating online.
‘Meaningful universal connectivity’ focuses not only on infrastructure and supply-side initiatives, but also on thoughtful approaches to demand-side issues, meeting the needs and expectations
of those who aren’t connected, while ensuring individuals who are already online continue to see value in continued participation.
A growing chorus of government officials, industry players and civil society participants recognize that the internet ecosystem needs to go beyond ‘business as usual’ to address these challenges. New strategies include: whole-of-government approaches that break down silos created by individual agencies or government ministries; truly innovative public-private partnerships – particularly targeting underserved and marginalized communities – that are sustainable and people-centric; and encouraging new modes of thinking, including welcoming and testing both sustaining innovations as well as disruptive kinds. And doing so while being candid and rigorous in tracking and measuring activities, clearly identifying what has worked and what hasn’t.
This update of the State of Broadband report details the progress made towards the 2025 Broadband Commission Targets.
For Target 1, 164 countries have introduced national broadband plans, digital strategies or ICT plans that include broadband, an increase from 159 countries last year.
For Target 2, Broadband access prices continue to decline in developing countries, and at least 90 countries have entry-level mobile broadband prices below 2% of monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, whereas 69 countries have entry-level fixed broadband prices below 2% of monthly GNIpc.
For Target 3, global broadband-internet user penetration is now at 51%, still some distance away from reaching the target of 75% by 2025 worldwide.
Significant progress is being made on the other four targets (on digital skills and literacy; adoption of digital financial services; getting businesses online; and achieving gender equality in access to broadband), though lack of statistical evidence from a broad range of countries makes this progress harder to quantify.
This report further includes additional actions and 10 recommendations that will help policy makers, the private sector and all participants in the connectivity ecosystem to accelerate efforts to reach the Commission’s 2025 targets.