The recent Internet Inclusive Index: Bridging Digital Divides report commissioned by Facebook and compiled by The Economist outlines some interesting findings. Twenty years after the Internet was 1st introduced, the quest continues to measure, understand and strengthen the impact of broadband services on every level of our society.
The Internet Inclusive Index is evaluated according to availability, affordability, relevance and readiness. It aims to determine the progress in closing the digital divide as well as the relevant criteria that enable success and Internet growth.
This research work shows that there are many options available for developing countries to leapfrog challenges and ensure ubiquitous Internet access.
As can be expected, the developed world i.e. US, UK, Europe etc. are leading the rankings, confirming that high-income enables access, content, skills and usage.
What is more interesting is that not all middle-income countries are laggards at inclusion – Romania, Russia, and Brazil rank top 20, with South Africa at 71 overall and 1st in Africa.
However, other low-income countries are setting high standards in enabling Internet inclusion. Nepal, Tanzania and Senegal are the best-performing in this category, with Nepal’s standing largely attributed to its development of national e-inclusion policies. Tanzania’s position reflects its efforts in the areas of digital literacy and data privacy, while Senegal has benefitted from initiatives to expand public WiFi access.
Poor connectivity and high prices in relation to local income go a long way towards explaining the developing world’s disadvantage in boosting inclusion. With the international success seen by mobile operators, it has become the de facto expectation that it is the responsibility of the national mobile and fixed telcos to improve access and reduce costs.
However, significant benefits come from leveraging Wi-Fi private and public partnership programmes in order to enable better Internet inclusion. Citizens of developed countries, particularly in urban areas, are by now accustomed to Wi-Fi coverage at low or no cost in cafes, universities, libraries, public transport and even streets and public squares. The largest Internet Service Providers in all but three of the 19 high-income countries offer free public Wi-Fi.
In South Africa, for example, Project Isizwe has helped the City of Tshwane to launch 803 free Wi-Fi zones. In Botswana, the government is facilitating the rollout of free Wi-Fi hotspots in rural villages as well as urban centres. Wi-Fi is becoming the workhorse of the Internet and will be the key to unlocking the “always-on” society expected of the future.
Not just Service Providers
While it is easy for the public and government to push telco operators to increase signal coverage and lower data rates, these initiatives unfortunately disguise some principle responsibilities by all public, private and business stakeholders. It is as much a responsibility of government to enable universal access as it is for the service providers to optimise costs.
As mentioned before, there are clear case studies that demonstrate the success of private-public programmes in increasing the adoption of Internet services and unlocking economic benefits. As each government needs to provision for the operating costs of public buildings, school, hospital, university etc., why not just include the provision of free Wi-Fi at these locations? Similar options exist for large enterprises who can enable free public Wi-Fi at petrol stations, airports, shopping malls, public transport etc.
In June 2016, the United Nation Human Rights Council passed a resolution that considers Internet access a basic human right. Within this mandate, it follows that it is fair to expect that at each location where clean water and toilet facilities are available, broadband access should also be available. If public building development regulations can stipulate the minimum amount of parking bays, the requirements for building electronic systems such as fire detection and security, and the required toilet facilities, then why not add the basic human right of broadband access.
The Technology Enablers
The feasibility of large-scaled public Wi-Fi zone is becoming even more realistic when we consider the advances in Wi-Fi radio equipment and sophisticated access control management solutions. Using technology such as Ruckus wireless access networks and Aptilo service management platforms, the management of public Wi-Fi services can easily form part of the other building electronic management portfolios.
It is further possible to implement business models to meet the expected “free WiFi” demand and provide broadband to the public at no cost while recovering expenses from other 3rd parties. In this model, your normal gym subscription could include free Wi-Fi access at your favourite shopping mall etc. Government health subsidies can include broadband allowances at all public parks and sub-urban areas.
Through empowering regulations, innovative strategies and enabling technologies, it is possible to grow and expand Wi-Fi access services, both on premises and in public areas. Furthermore, it can be expected that the shifts and growth in this area will come from creative business models in government and private enterprises. All things being equal, the public mobile operators have enabled and unlocked most of the momentum. However, these giants will not necessarily be leading the next generation of Wi-Fi services providers.