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Mobile data costs fall but as demand for internet services surges, progress remains too slow

Web Foundation · March 4, 2021

This analysis is based on original A4AI research on mobile data prices in 95 low and middle-income countries.

In addition, A4AI has published data on an expanded set of internet price baskets across 200 countries, in partnership with the ITU.

The latest edition of our mobile pricing data shows that costs continue to come down. This is welcome news. But our data also makes clear that in a world where internet access has become a lifeline, progress is far too slow, a billion people still living in countries where basic access is not affordable. As demand for ICTs continues to grow, we must also take a hard look at today’s affordability targets and consider how we raise ambitions to meet people’s need for affordable meaningful connectivity.

Costs fall but still unaffordable for the many

We measure internet affordability as the price of data as a percentage of average monthly income. Across the 95 countries we studied, the average cost of 1GB mobile data fell from 4.6% to 4.1% of income between 2019 and 2020, a drop of 12.4%. While still twice the UN’s ‘1 for 2’ affordability target — 1GB data for no more than 2% average monthly income — this much-needed progress means millions more people were able to stay connected with loved ones and access life-saving health information.

Seven countries reached the UN target for the first time. These countries — Bolivia, Cameroon, Ghana, Libya, Mongolia, Morocco and South Africa — have a combined population of 222 million people.

Yet, of the 95 countries included in our analysis, 52 are yet to reach ‘1 for 2’, meaning almost one billion people live in countries where basic internet access remains unaffordable. And even in countries where 1GB is priced at less than 2% of average monthly income, income inequality means that basic internet access will still be out of reach for many lower-earners.

Africa continues to improve while the Americas plateau 

The good news is that prices are dropping quickly in places where high costs pose the biggest barriers. Affordability of 1GB across least developed countries (LDCs) improved by 15%, down to 7.2% of average monthly income. In Africa, the region where mobile internet remains least affordable (5.8% of average monthly income), the average cost of 1GB has dropped by a third since the UN target was adopted in 2018.

However, at the country level Africa’s progress is uneven and huge disparities remain. While the average consumer in Egypt pays just 0.5% of their income for a monthly 1GB, those in the Central African Republic pay an eye-watering 24.4% — an 8% jump from 2019.

Figure 1 – Mobile data affordability by region (Made with Highcharts)

Across Asia there was similar improvement, albeit from a much lower base, with costs falling 11.8% in 2020. This is a marked improvement from the previous year which saw little change. In contrast with Africa, the disparity between countries in Asia is far narrower, ranging from Sri Lanka where the price of 1GB of data is equivalent to 0.3% of average monthly income to Afghanistan where 1GB is priced 5.5%.

Figure 2 – Most and least affordable countries by region (Made with Highcharts)

In the Americas there was virtually no change in aggregate affordability in 2020. Countries that saw significant improvements were offset by others where affordability worsened. In some countries where data became less affordable, increased costs were explained by high rates of inflation or the introduction of entry-level plans with bigger data packages at higher costs. 

After five years of progress, data still too costly

The cost of data has fallen substantially in all regions since A4AI began publishing mobile broadband pricing data five years ago. Across the 52 low and middle-income countries that have been included in our analysis every year since 2015, the average affordability for 1GB of mobile data decreased from 7.0% in 2015 to 2.7% in 2020. 

Figure 3 – Regional affordability of data over time(Made with Highcharts)

Over this time we’ve seen particularly strong improvements in Africa and the LDCs, with costs dropping by an average of 65% in both groupings. In the least developed countries we’ve studied since 2015, people who previously paid an average 14.1% of their income for 1GB, today pay 4.8%. Uganda has seen costs fall from almost 28% of income to 6%, while Bangladesh and Cambodia have all now achieved the UN’s ‘1 for 2’ affordability target.

Figure 4 – Affordability progress in LDCs between 2015 and 2020(Made with Highcharts)

Looking forward to more ambitious targets

But despite five years of improvements, the majority of countries in our analysis still have unaffordable basic data plans. Africa and the Americas are still some way from reaching the ‘1 for 2’ target as regional averages. This is a tough and persistent problem that needs to be overcome.

But looking forward, the affordability challenge becomes greater still as we need to raise ambitions beyond basic access. While 1GB of data might have been sufficient to meet someone’s internet needs five years ago, today this package is severely limiting and in five years time it will be totally inadequate. With that in mind, A4AI is conducting an analysis that will support an update of the data allowance used in the affordability target. 

The average affordability of a 2GB package currently stands at 5.8% and a 5GB package is priced at 9.9% of average monthly income. This puts them out of reach for the vast majority of people in low and middle-income countries. In order to keep pace with our evolving needs for digital technology, it is critical that we rapidly bring down costs so that these bigger data packages are within reach for everyone.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet is ready and waiting to work in partnership with governments, companies and civil society to drive the change needed to bring down the cost to connect and deliver universal affordable meaningful connectivity. Stay tuned for our updates on the affordability target this year!

Correction: Due to some translation and transcription errors during the data collection phase a previous version of this analysis incorrectly stated that Guinea and Kyrgyzstan were reaching the affordability target for the first time. All affected calculations have been updated according to the amended data in those two countries.

More information on policies needed to deliver affordable internet:

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