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Mobile data prices fall across low and middle income countries

Web Foundation · October 1, 2019

This post is based on original Alliance for Affordable Internet research on data pricing in low- and middle-income countries.

The cost of mobile data for consumers in low and middle-income countries has fallen across all regions studied as part of the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s (A4AI) latest analysis of mobile broadband pricing.

In the 100 countries measured, the average cost for 1GB data as a percentage of average monthly income declined from 5.76% to 4.69% — a drop of 11.24%. This fall in costs brings internet access within reach for millions more people and marks welcome progress in the effort to make internet access affordable for everyone.

For the past four years, A4AI has published data on mobile broadband pricing across low- and middle-income countries to measure progress on affordability and encourage policy change to decrease broadband costs. The latest data, covering 100 countries, is based on market prices collected between April and June 2019.

Promising progress in low-income countries

Across Africa, where internet data remains unaffordable for millions — particularly women — there was a particularly steep decline, with the cost of 1GB data dropping from 9% to 7.1% of average monthly income.

Graph showing average cost of 1GB data in Africa, Americas, Asia, and all countries, 2018 compared to 2019.

Low-income countries saw the most improvement, a historic reversal with progress of poorer countries previously lagging behind middle-income countries. Overall, low-income countries saw prices drop from 13.4% of average monthly income to 10.9% for 1GB data. And people in low-income African countries saw a 17.7% improvement in affordability, with prices dropping from 15% to 12% of average income.

A number of low-income countries made particularly impressive strides, giving cause for optimism. In Sierra Leone, the relative cost of 1GB data tumbled from 25.9% to 9.9% after the introduction of a number of more affordable data plans by the largest operator. In Burkina Faso, reduced prices halved the cost of 1GB from 14.8% to 7.8% of monthly income, whereas in Zimbabwe, it was not lower prices but rising incomes that brought the relative cost down from 19.8% to 10.1%. However, data remains too expensive for many, and all stakeholders have to keep up the pressure to solidify these gains and continue the trajectory.

Graph showing change in price over average income in Africa, Americas, and Asia

Internet still not affordable in most countries

Despite healthy progress across the board, Asia is the only region that has reached the UN’s ‘1 for 2’ threshold for internet affordability — defined as 1GB for no more than 2% average monthly income. This is the level at which access becomes affordable for most people, including those at below average income levels. Of the 100 countries studied, just 37 have achieved the ‘1 for 2’ threshold and no region has met the target across all countries. In some countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic, the cost of 1GB data remains over 20% of the average monthly income — unaffordable for all but the wealthy few.

While not the only barrier to access, the high cost of data is the biggest factor keeping people offline. Unsurprisingly, those countries and regions with the least affordable data are also those with the fewest people connected to the internet. Africa, where data is least affordable, is the region with the lowest average internet penetration at around 24%, compared with 51% globally.

Costs need to come down to make universal access possible

While internet access is still unaffordable in most low and middle-income countries, seven countries passed the ‘1 for 2’ affordability threshold for the first time in 2019: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cabo Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, Namibia, and Paraguay.

Bringing data down to an affordable level in these seven countries was associated with a greater increase in mobile internet subscribers (5.5%) than countries that already had affordable data (3.9%) or countries yet to reach the ‘1 for 2’ affordability target (3.7%).

Paths to progress

More governments must take urgent action to achieve the internet affordability target if we’re to speed up the rate of people coming online and connect the next billion. Research from A4AI’s 2018 Affordability Report found that low- and middle-income countries made some of the greatest progress towards reaching affordable prices when they focused on adopting a clear, strategic broadband plan, investing in comprehensive public access, and managing spectrum efficiently and transparently. 

A failure to deliver affordable internet access will keep citizens offline and drive global inequality. The recent drops in data costs in some countries shows what’s possible — it’s time for all governments to follow suit.

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