Earlier this month, Ghana took action towards making the internet affordable for all its citizens, regardless of income.
The Ghanaian government formally endorsed an affordability threshold put forward by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), a Washington, D.C.-based coalition working to drive down the cost of broadband access via policy and regulatory change. The alliance has 80 members from around the world in the public and private sectors and civil society.
In most of the developed world, a fast, reliable internet connection costs less than 1 percent of average monthly income, according to A4AI. In the world’s least developed countries, the cost of just 500MB of data is around 15 percent of average income.
A4AI’s target is for 1GB of mobile broadband to cost 2 percent or less of average monthly income. Ghana is the second country to endorse the target after Nigeria.
It is clearly a major step forward. The 16 countries of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) have also endorsed the target.
A4AI believes governmental support is absolutely crucial towards ensuring more people are connected to the internet. The group’s research has found that when connectivity costs drop to the “1 for 2” (1G for 2 percent of monthly income) level, all levels of income earners are able to access the internet.
“By publicly committing to work toward this level, government leaders are committing to ensure that income is not a barrier to internet access – a reality which will enable the millions of people offline throughout Africa to afford to come online,” said Eleanor Sarpong, deputy director and policy lead for A4AI.
Ghana and Nigeria, however, are exceptions rather than the rule. Although some governments have made great strides to prioritize ICT policy, many others have failed to do so. This remains a significant obstacle to universal, affordable internet access.
“Government leadership is vital to driving down internet prices and achieving connectivity targets, however, governments aren’t providing their citizens with affordable access opportunities simply by not taking action to develop and implement the policy and regulatory changes needed to improve affordability and expand access,” Sarpong said.
This is clearly demonstrated by A4AI’s 2017 Affordability Report, which reported policy across Africa has barely changed over the past two years. Sarpong is calling for this to change.
“Governments must take urgent action to reverse this trend, and to place ICT policy at the heart of the political agenda. These policies must include concrete and time-bound targets, so that civil society and citizens alike can track progress, and can hold governments accountable to the promises they’ve made,” she said.
This is vital for Africa’s development. Information communication technology (ICT) makes a significant contribution to economic growth and social opportunity.
“Africans cannot just be consumers of the internet but need to be contributors to its content. It is time for African countries to increase investment in ICT by putting their USAFs and other resources to efficient and more inclusive use,” Sarpong said.
“Users also need to demand accountable and transparent investments that focus on infrastructure sharing and expansion, while also investing in digital skills and locally driven content.”
That said, there has been some progress. Access to the internet has increased in Africa over the past year, with 25 percent of the continent now connected. However, only five of the 27 African countries surveyed for the A4AI Affordability Report have achieved the “1 for 2” affordability target.
“On the whole, the price of data remains far too high throughout the continent, with 1GB costing, on average, 18 percent of monthly income,” said Sarpong.
“African countries scored higher than the global average on measures of policy and regulation for competition, with some countries, including Mozambique and Botswana, introducing new policies to streamline licensing regimes and to discourage anti-competitive behavior.”
Policies to mandate or encourage infrastructure sharing – which allow costs for both operators and consumers to drop – are on the rise, and can be found in Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique and Benin.
That is not the end of the process, however. Even once prices do fall, connectivity will remain unaffordable for a number of poor and marginalized people. Sarpong said prioritizing and expanding public access initiatives will be critical to connect these populations.
“Many countries in Latin America, including Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia, have focused resources and efforts on putting into place free or subsidised access schemes in public places, particularly in rural and poor communities,” she said.
“Partly as a result, Latin American countries feature heavily in the top rankings of the Affordability Report’s Affordability Drivers Index rankings.”
One company that has been a driver in rolling out free internet is South Africa’s Project Isizwe, founded by Alan Knott-Craig. Project Isizwe now has over 300,000 devices logging in daily to its internet in Tshwane, with almost 40 percent of citizens within walking distance.
Knott-Craig believes internet access should become a basic service akin to water and electricity, but says government commitment would need to be the foundation for this.
“Ghana’s move is big. Tshwane continues to lead the way in South Africa. There are some well-intentioned initiatives across Africa, but very little progress,” Knott-Craig said.
The need, however, is very clear.
“Free internet access, particularly for poor communities, is the simplest means to tackle economic inequality. It allows for people to find and apply for jobs, to start online businesses, and to generally engage with the economy around them,” Knott-Craig said.
Tom Jackson is the co-founder of tech news and research platform Disrupt Africa and a journalist covering innovation on the continent from the Cape to Cairo.