Alliance for Affordable Internet to lead digital policy reform in developing countries
An alliance made up of private and public sector organisations aims to drive policy and regulatory reform in order to make access to the web in developing markets more affordable.
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) -- a programme initiated by the World Wide Web Foundation -- aims to help access prices fall to below five percent of monthly income worldwide, with a view to helping to connect the two-thirds of the world's population that still doesn't have access to the web.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation said that "the majority of the world's people are still not online, usually because they can't afford to be". He points out that in Mozambique, 1GB of data can cost more than two months' wages for the average citizen.
"The result of high prices is a widening digital divide that slows progress in vital areas such as health, education and science. Yet with the advent of affordable smartphones, new undersea cables and innovations in wireless spectrum usage, there is simply no good reason for the digital divide to continue. The real bottleneck now is anti-competitive policies and regulations that keep prices unaffordable. The Alliance is about removing that barrier and helping as many as possible get online at reasonable cost," he said in a statement.
A4AI is supported by more than thirty members, including Google, UK Department for International Development, USAID, Omidyar Network, Cisco, Digicel, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Yahoo and Ericsson. The members will work together to effect policy changes across the developing world, with a focus on Africa. The organisation is chaired by Dr Bitange Ndemo, the former Permanent Secretary of Kenya's Ministry of Information and Communications, who is regarded as the "father" of broadband in Kenya.
The Alliance has been in the works for more than a year. "All of our work focusses on reforming and adjusting the policy and regulatory environment in developing countries to better facilitate affordable internet in those countries," explains Sonia Jorge, executive director of A4AI, to Wired.co.uk.
"Many countries haven't gone through the process of revision or updating current policy at a national level so that even though there are a lot of good leaders, the policies don't support the work they ant to do," Jorge added.
Jorge suggests that many countries need regulations to encourage the sharing of infrastructure and to make the allocation of spectrum simpler and more transparent to allow for more competition in a market. Another idea is to create universal service funds to finance and support the development of rural infrastructure. "The alliance has an opportunity to share experience and knowledge of updating regulations with those countries," she added. "We will do this in coordination with the stakeholders of each country; we are not just telling people to reform their regulatory framework."
"Policy change can be complicated -- it can take time," Google's Access Principal Jennifer Haroon told Wired.co.uk. "What we've seen, though, is when policy change is implemented, improvements can happen fast. Kenya, considered the tech hub of East Africa, is a great example. Kenya's digital revolution was sparked after they liberalised their market."
Haroon cites the work that Google has done in South Africa to use TV white spaces for broadband -- which has involved speaking with government, service providers and non-profits -- as an example of the advances that can be made when you consider both technology and policy together.
The Alliance is already engaging with three countries and hopes to add three or for more countries each year so that by the end of 2015 it's working with 12 countries. There will be a strong focus on Africa, but also Latin America and Asia.
How does the Alliance compare to Mark Zuckerberg's Internet.org? "We share a common goal of affordability and widespread access to the internet across developing countries. But Internet.org is about identifying the technical innovations and business models that can help drive down the cost of access and data transfer. A4AI is about access and policy. So while we have different focusses they are obviously complementary," explains Jorge.
A4AI will produce an annual "Affordability Report", the first of which will launch in December 2013.