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Illustration by Neema Iyer

Illustration by Neema Iyer

Covid-19 shows we need more than basic internet access — we need meaningful connectivity

Web Foundation · May 27, 2020

As internet access proves more critical than ever, Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), explains how A4AI’s new meaningful connectivity target will help to raise the bar for internet access.

The Covid-19 pandemic has galvanised the case for universal internet access like never before, generating widespread agreement that the internet is too important to leave anyone offline and renewing calls for expanded connectivity to be an absolute priority for policymakers.

At the same time, the crisis has underlined the huge digital divide that remains both globally, with vast swathes of the world still largely unconnected, and within countries, with marginalised groups — typically women, people on low-incomes and those in rural areas — disproportionately stranded without access in this time of critical need.

The good news is this moment is a major opportunity to accelerate progress to close these gaps. The bad news is, the job is bigger than we might think. That’s because efforts to close the access gap today are centered on the gap between who’s online and the 46% of the world that still has zero internet access. A binary approach. And one that ignores the critical elements that make up an affordable and reliable connection.

As the current pandemic has made clear, basic internet access is not enough. The internet’s most useful features — video calling, streaming, education and health apps — demand a high quality of internet connection. While over half the world is now online, many people who are online still lack meaningful connectivity.

To close this persistent digital divide in access and use, and make transformative progress in global connectivity, we need to look beyond this basic access and make sure people can use the full power of the internet.

Raising the bar for internet access

To do this, we need to rethink how we measure access and give policymakers tools to set broadband policies that can deliver the internet people need.

That’s why we’ve created a new target meaningful connectivity — to define the dimensions of internet access that matter most to users and to help set new, more ambitious targets for connectivity.

Meaningful connectivity gives us a framework to differentiate between those who check their emails every few weeks on a public network, and those who use fast-fiber all day every day to conduct their life. It helps policymakers develop clear targets not only to bring more people online, but also to guarantee the quality of connection for users who remain under-connected or excluded from digital opportunities.

Connecting more people to affordable internet remains critically important. But we must make sure that when people get online, they have meaningful connectivity.

Four features that matter most to users

The four key dimensions at the heart of this target should be the focus of efforts to raise the bar for internet access:

  1. Regular internet use | minimum threshold: daily internet access
  2. An appropriate device | minimum threshold: access to a smartphone
  3. Enough data | minimum threshold: An unlimited broadband connection at home, or place of work or study
  4. A fast connection | minimum threshold: 4G mobileconnectivity

These proposed dimensions were developed in consultation with A4AI members, partners and other experts and were informed by national surveys and in-depth focus groups with users. Outlined fully in our meaningful connectivity paper, these dimensions are what users say are most relevant to having a meaningful online experience.

For instance, users overwhelmingly told us that they want to be able to stream videos and access other visual content. 4G technology enables speeds that allow users to do data-heavy activities without dropping and buffering.

And on devices, users will ideally have access to a range of hardware to suit their needs. We chose smartphones as the minimum threshold because they have features that people want: multifunctionality, portability, a camera, voice recording and access to a large library of useful apps. Smartphones, especially lower cost device options, also have the potential to help close the digital gender divide, with women far more likely to have access to a smartphone than a desktop or laptop.

Setting new targets for internet access

These four dimensions of meaningful connectivity are not targets — they are the minimums that people need in order to see real benefits from internet connectivity. Countries are at different stages in their digital development and so rather than prescribe specific targets, these minimums provide a floor for governments to aim for. Policymakers should then use the framework to regularly evaluate their targets as they make progress on these dimensions of meaningful connectivity.

As technology evolves, so too do our needs and expectations. While 3G was perfectly adequate 15 years ago, today it does not provide the speeds people need to conduct basic digital tasks — including, for example, learning online, speaking with family members, connecting with customers and participating in data-heavy telehealth consultations. Indeed, these minimum thresholds will need to evolve over time to meet the demands of the day.

What happens next

We are focused on building broad consensus among international bodies, national governments, civil society and the private sector to adopt this target and use it as the basis for raising the bar for internet access. We count on all partners in the sector to embrace this ambitious effort and work together to ensure that internet access is an equalising force, rather than one that exacerbates inequality.

We will soon publish a policy guide with direction on how to measure progress across the four target areas and recommendations on the policy actions needed to drive progress. Meanwhile, we’re working with governments and partners to develop context specific strategies to make progress towards meaningful connectivity at the national level.

This target is the culmination of a number of months’ work; however, we hope it is only the beginning of years of effective and collaborative broadband policy-making. We look forward to working with our members and partners to develop policy pathways that lead to digital equality. Join us on this effort and engage with our team!

Read more about meaningful connectivity. Contact A4AI to learn more about how you can adopt and implement the target.

Help us spread the word about meaningful connectivity on social media using this toolkit.

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