Tag Archives: digital inclusion

EuroDIG 2021: Takeaway messages for libraries

The 2021 edition of the European Dialogue on Internet Governance offers an opportunity to take stock of recent developments in the policies and practices within the digital ecosystem which can be of interest and impact libraries in Europe – and around the world.

1)    Moving ahead to champion Open Science

Open Science, particularly its digital dimensions, was among the key topics of interest in this year’s EuroDIG. Noting the many helpful local, regional and international (e.g. discipline-specific) open science initiatives, UNESCO and other stakeholders discussed the value of developing a comprehensive shared definition and normative approach; and UNESCO itself offered an update on its draft Recommendation on Open Science.

Here, a summary of key points raised by various stakeholders and Member States during the UNESCO consultation (to which IFLA also contributed) included references to the importance of infrastructure (e.g. internet connectivity), of Open Science monitoring, and of non-profit and sustainable services and infrastructures to support Open Science in light of the risks of commercial monopolisation. In November 2021, the draft Recommendations are due to be submitted to the UNESCO Geneva Conference with a view to their adoption, followed by anticipated adoption among Member States.

Open Data. A closely related topic which may be interesting for libraries working in this area is open data – particularly how to open and share data which is more sensitive and requires further safeguards. Noting the current legal provisions which govern the lifecycles and usage of such data (e.g. laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation), the speakers pointed out some of the existing and possible approaches which can help enable such data-sharing to take place securely in practice. These include, for example, various licensing models, or setting out rules on access to such sensitive data – e.g. for specific purposes, or to limited types of stakeholders.

This discussion also pointed to the importance of investing in infrastructural support, education, and awareness-raising, to help researchers navigate the questions around opening sensitive data. These discussions are of course highly relevant for libraries offering support or training on research data management, licensing or copyright for their institutions.

2)    Online learning: where do we stand today?

Digital divides and inequalities. The 2021 EuroDIG also offered an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned from the rapid shift to digital in learning and education, which has taken place in many parts of the world over the past year. One of the most prominent challenges here is, of course, the widely-noted digital divide – inequalities in access to suitable connectivity or devices (or even suitable spaces) for learners, and the ability to use them effectively.

The social element. The social dimension of learning is another consideration – with concerns expressed over the possible impacts of all-digital learning on students’ social interactions and wellbeing. Some survey data suggests, for example, that parents reported positive impacts of remote learning for students’ math and reading competencies – but see it as having a more negative impact on their social skills. This raises the question of whether it is possible to leverage existing (and develop new) applications and digital mediums to further promote meaningful interaction and wellbeing.

These points relate to the questions many libraries themselves have been grappling with since they introduced virtual programming to support learning and social interaction for children – from storytimes to creative workshops or clubs.

Platforms, walled gardens, educational content discoverability. Another part of the discussion focused on digital learning platforms and tools themselves. Here, stakeholders noted that it is crucial for platforms to not only optimise learning – but to also take fully into account learners’ digital autonomy, digital self-determination, privacy and ethics.

Another consideration is the  “walled gardens” of some commercial learning platforms – those characterised by limited interoperability and a lack of access to their learning materials from outside of the platform (e.g with access cut off once a course ends). For libraries, this latter point relates to their own concerns over equity and availability of access to digital learning materials. One of the draft take-away messages also highlights the importance of tools that increase the discoverability of educational content across the various available platforms.

3)    Privacy and data protection – not an obstacle to productivity

Built-in privacy. Another well-noted impact of rapid digitalisation is the immense increase in the amount of data being generated and collected in the process. Naturally, this puts into the spotlight questions around data privacy (especially for personal data) and data protection.

This echoes some of the questions libraries themselves had to answer during the pandemic – which platform can be used for virtual programming? How to minimise data collection? What initiatives targeting particular user groups are possible?

Some of the suggested measures to address these concerns included clear internal policies and processes which build in privacy at the outset, increased transparency and accountability, and, importantly, actively promoting the idea that “data protection is not an obstacle to productivity and innovation”.

Digital skills. Another element that can help preserve privacy and data security is, of course, learning – both for staff members (to help guide internal processes) and users (to help understand and navigate their own use of the internet – e.g. online financial services). This will be familiar to many in the library field who are increasingly focused on supporting digital literacy and confidence within their communities.

4)    Paths towards a greener digital future

The complexity of the relationship between the ongoing digital transformation and environment and sustainability is, of course, well-noted. Technology has immense potential to help track and mitigate today’s environmental challenges. Yet it also contributes to these challenges in various ways, from energy consumption and resource extraction to e-waste.

A part of the EuroDIG discussions dedicated to environmental sustainability focused on a broader public perspective: the impacts of lifestyles and consumption patterns around technology.

As such, one of the key needed changes the participants highlighted were policies, practices and infrastructure facilitating the reuse and repair of technology. Another important element was raising public awareness and education, to enable communities to make sustainable choices – which also requires access to quality information and transparency about technology.

Such questions are of course of interest for libraries: from public procurement, to repair workshops held in libraries, to raising awareness about sustainable consumption patterns.

A related point focused on the link between sustainability and equality of access. Here, it can be worthwhile also to examine models of access that support equitable digital inclusion while keeping the number of new devices entering circulation lower (whether it is distributing refurbished technology, free public access to ICT, and others).

These are just some of the discussions from the 2021 EuroDIG which can be worthwhile and interesting for libraries to keep track of – with more sessions exploring questions around freedom of expression and content moderation practices online, formal and informal media literacy learning practices, and more.

You can take a look at the draft EuroDIG2021 takeaway messages, access all session recordings, and stay engaged with internet governance discussions to share insights, perspectives and good practices from across the global library field!

World Information Society Day 2021: Adaptation, Innovation and Transformation

17 May marked the annual World Telecommunication and Information Society Day. This year’s theme, “Accelerating digital transformation in challenging times”, encourages libraries to reflect on their own digital journeys over the past year, and on the next steps in reaching global connectivity goals and ambitions.

For over a decade, libraries’ roles in the information society have been fairly well-established. The WSIS Tunis Agenda and the Geneva Plan of Action, as early as 2003-2005, sought to engage and support libraries as public access points, facilitators of digital skills learning, and champions of (cultural) content generation.

To this day, these elements reflect some of the key goals libraries pursue in their work to support meaningful digital inclusion. However, as the theme of this year’s WTIS Day highlights, the pandemic has accelerated the global digital transformation, and the past months have posed both a considerable challenge and an impetus for innovation as libraries shifted to digital.

Library innovation in challenging times

This included, of course, digitalising some of the core offers, such as expanding digital collections, introducing or broadening online reference services) and putting other traditional activities online (e.g. book clubs and storytime events).

But this year also saw libraries come up with creative ways to put forward diverse and expanded offers, such as virtual cooking and gymnastics events in libraries in Italy, or the ICT-enabled remote bibliotherapy and psychological support in libraries in Lithuania and Romania. There were various interesting ideas for digitally recreating various elements of library user experiences – for example, a “virtual study space” held by an academic library in Turkey through Zoom.

The sustained emphasis on using technologies as ‘a force for good’ also helps us think about the broader social impacts of such digital initiatives. For example, one approach to maximising libraries’ positive impact emphasised broadening their reach. There were many examples of libraries introducing or easing the process of digital membership applications and e-cards to make sure that more people can benefit from their services with the shift to digital. There have also been examples of libraries working to offer access to valuable materials without any restrictions on membership – like the Central Library in Tallinn setting up a digital access platform for ebooks available to all citizens.

Another way to understand the societal impacts is by focusing on how libraries worked to meet communities’ needs – for example, the many ways academic, school and public libraries supported the educational shift to digital. In Kenya, for instance, a community library set up a temporary multimedia studio which teachers used to conduct and livestream daily online classes.

Lessons learned and moving forward

The library actions listed above set out ways in which libraries are working to address the broader digital connectivity gap and inequalities that the pandemic has so sharply highlighted.

While examples such as these are inspiring and show the flexibility and adaptability of the global library field, all this of course depends on local circumstances and capacities. There were cases where the pandemic highlighted the need for library connectivity, better access to technologies, digital skills-building opportunities for librarians, or more supportive policy frameworks.

The need is great, and WTIS Day 2021 sets the goal not just of continuing, but rather of accelerating digital transformation. For libraries to play their part in more rapid progress towards meaningful digital inclusion, they will need to be properly recognised in national policies for meaningful digital inclusion. A good starting point is therefore the ITU’s own Connect 2030 Agenda – so what does it contain and what role can libraries play in helping realise it?

Libraries and the Connect 2030 Goals

The Agenda was developed by the International Telecommunications Union and its members to define the targets and transformations in the digital sphere needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. It comprises 5 key goals – to power Growth, Inclusiveness, Sustainability, Innovation and Partnerships.

The first two goals contain indicators on digital inclusion and connectivity – both on the global scale and for developing countries and underserved user groups (i.e. women and people with disabilities) in particular.

Among these targets, there are areas where libraries already work to help their realisation – e.g. on the number of people using the internet, on the affordability of connectivity (which public access can help achieve), and digital skills.

The Agenda also sets out various targets focusing on digital policy frameworks, such as:

  • The “number of countries with a specific policy for ICT accessibility” (all countries by 2023);
  • “By 2023, all countries should have a National Emergency Telecommunication Plan as part of their national and local disaster risk reduction strategies”;
  • “By 2023, all countries should have policies/strategies fostering telecommunication/ICT-centric innovation”;
  • “By 2023, raise the percentage of countries with an e-waste legislation to 50%”

All these areas have already attracted interest and generated discussion within the library field. From the US, for example, we have insights on the role of libraries in crisis and natural disaster response – including their role in offering access to the internet, electricity, and in helping spread critical information during the crisis. Similarly, there are country-level case studies which outline the role libraries can play in supporting ICT innovation. For example, the ITU’s recent report on Moldova points out the contribution of the Novateca Libraries to helping build the soft (e.g. skills) and hard infrastructure which encourages innovation in the country.

As such, there are different ways libraries can contribute to these ambitions – and as more countries move to develop and adopt policies on accessibility, ICT innovation, e-waste and emergency telecommunication by 2023, it is well worth it for libraries to keep informed and engage with these policy dialogues in order to be recognised as partners in achieving success.

Digital Day 2021 – Towards a More Green, Creative and Diverse Digital Future

19 March marks the European Digital Day – an occasion for stakeholders from Member States and the EU to discuss the challenges of navigating the digital transformation, and commit to action towards a greener, more robust, fair and sustainable digital future.

This gives libraries – not just within the EU, but around the world – an opportunity to reflect on their own roles in this transformation. The Digital Day agenda points to a few key topics at the forefront of the discussion: these include fostering green digital solutions and a diverse and robust tech startup ecosystem.

What is the library angle on this – and how can libraries contribute to these priority goals?

Together for a greener digital future

Clearly, library field’s ambition to support sustainability and help reduce damage to the environment is longstanding (with many initiatives, for example, spotlighted and launched by the Environment, Sustainability and Libraries Section of IFLA). What does this mean for their role in the digital information society?

On a larger scale, the relationship between environment protection and digital transformation goals is fundamentally two-sided. Reflections on this duality can clearly be seen, for example, in the conclusions and main take-aways from the 2020 Internet Governance Forum Environment track.

On the one hand, participants underlined the vast potential of technology to measure, monitor, examine, and help address the current environmental crises. On the other hand, the ICT ecosystem consumes vast amounts of energy, and the CO2 emission is produces cannot be ignored – not to mention other environmental considerations such as e-waste.

In fact, the summary of takeaway messages notes that there are studies indicating a negative correlation between digitisation and progress towards climate and environmental SDG goals. One of the key questions this raises is how to bridge the digital divide in an environmentally sustainable way – and what is needed to leverage ICT to build a more green and sustainable future.

Open Data

Crucially for libraries, one key part of the answer here is that of opening data – a key prerequisite for developing technology solutions to help meet environmental and sustainability goals. IGF stakeholders reiterated that a lot of relevant and crucial environmental data is already being collected – but not always shared by private or public bodies, or is not easily available for others to access, use or act on.

In an earlier blog, we have looked into the diverse roles libraries play in championing and supporting the open data movement. Academic libraries assist researchers in using and contributing to available open data, curate and help ensure easy use and access to open datasets. There are excellent examples of public libraries helping engage the wider public and non-experts in open data initiatives – or partnering with public bodies to help build user-friendly open data portals which support and encourage engagement.

These competencies and potential can certainly be leveraged for opening data that helps address environmental crises. Similarly, libraries are in a unique position to offer equitable opportunities to learn skills of working with data, programming and coding to better address these challenges (see e.g. Brooklyn Public Library’s “Coding Environment” virtual offering).

Digital device economy

An equally pressing question is the sustainability and environmental impact of connectivity devices. Association for Progressive Communications has recently released a preview of a Guide to Circular Economies of Digital Devices, which highlights the current impact of a linear digital device economy model, and makes the case for circular digital device economies.

One of the interesting points the guide raises is:

“If we consider that devices are valuable for their computing resources, then we should focus on the right to use a device, not on the right to ownership. Maximising circularity asks us to see devices as collective property that circulates among users until they are finally recycled.”

Naturally, the key insights this points to focus on reuse and circulation of devices, as well as recycling to extract the value of raw materials.

However, for libraries, this also raises interesting questions about the value of the kind of collective use and public access to devices libraries offer – from PCs and printers to creative equipment like cameras and 3D printers. So it would certainly be interesting to further examine what kind of role public and shared device use models can take in the discussion of device use, as opposed to device ownership.

Together for a robust and diverse tech innovation ecosystem

Another key element of the Digital Day agenda emphasises dialogue and commitments to foster a robust, diverse and sustainable tech startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem. Certainly, this goal and ambition isn’t unique to Europe (see, for example, the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa).

One of the persistent challenges the IT sector has been working to address are gender and diversity gaps in tech startups. While this is certainly a complex issue requiring comprehensive and multi-level solutions, is there a way for libraries to contribute their part – and support tech innovation at large?

As the experience of some libraries suggest, they are well-positioned to deliver a unique combination of two outreach initiatives that can help make a difference.

On the one hand, from Singapore to South Africa to the United States, libraries offer digital skills learning opportunities – from classes to makerspace workshops, helping nurture people’s interest in, and even develop competencies that can useful for employment in, the IT field.

The idea of diversifying the tech sector through such clubs and learning opportunities is not new, of course. But the unique position of libraries as a wide network of trusted and open institutions shows how much scope there is for amplifying these efforts and reaching more people.

And on the other side, there is libraries’ experiences with helping people find employment – including their support for business and entrepreneurship. Library support can range from access to databases with valuable information, market research and company data, to helping navigate questions IP rights, and more.

Taken together, these library capacities can help bring more people into the sector, foster creativity and tech innovation – and mode towards a more fair, sustainable and diverse digital future.

Five Ways That Libraries Offer Meaningful Connectivity

A guest blog by Teddy Woodhouse, research manager at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).

Parking lot Wi-Fi hotspots in the United States, mobile vans in Ghana, and mobile phone lending in India. These are just some snapshots of how libraries have helped people stay connected through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beyond just access, libraries can help offer meaningful connectivity – where internet access can advance personal, professional, or educational development. We at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) have identified four factors of internet access that are important thresholds for connectivity to become meaningful: a 4G mobile connection; smartphone ownership; an unlimited broadband connection at home, work, or a place of study; and daily internet use. Libraries are part of this mission towards greater meaningful connectivity for the greatest number possible – and here’s five ways how.

  1. Libraries broaden the network of connectivity ‘oases’.

A key indicator for meaningful connectivity is daily access to an unlimited broadband connection. These points of high-capacity connectivity are a core part of people’s experiences with the internet. These might be found at home for many: however, libraries are unique in their ambition to offer this level of connectivity to anyone in their community.

Along with schools and places of work, libraries add to the constellation of access points that increase connectivity across a community and build the reliability of internet access as a regular part of someone’s life and as a way of learning and doing business.

  1. Libraries provide connectivity to the most vulnerable.

Libraries play an essential role in the access to ICT ecosystem, especially for low-income and first-time users who lack the financial means or digital skills basis to maintain their own private connection. Access through institutions like libraries also helps pool the cost burden among a wider number of users, make access more affordable in more remote or marginalised areas, and can, in ideal cases, also provide a basis for wider projects such as community networks.

Through this, libraries ensure that the digital divide does not become a simple copy of income inequality and that an individual’s wealth does not predetermine how meaningful their internet access will be.

  1. Libraries extend skills and safety along with connectivity.

Libraries are also trusted institutions. In a time of peak misinformation and greater social distrust, libraries have a unique trait in that people from all walks of life are more likely to trust them and the services they offer. The digital divide is not just about infrastructure – it is about the skills gap as well. This boundary – which disproportionately affects women – is one where libraries can be especially effective in providing trained staff and gender-inclusive spaces for learning that enables each individual to develop their skills and become digitally autonomous.

  1. Libraries help find and grow locally-relevant content.

Librarians help people find information that’s useful for them. This support system enables people to discover locally-relevant content in a way that global search engines cannot replace. It responds to the range of characteristics such as language, gender, or background, which can  influence what information is relevant to an individual. Through the trusted support of a librarian, more people are able to learn how to find the information that matters to them online.

In addition to finding locally-relevant content, libraries can help increase the presence of such content online. In a time where just over 60% of the web is in English, there are huge gaps in the world’s knowledge and what parts of that knowledge are available online to speakers of different languages. As connectivity grows in an area, so too does the amount of locally-relevant content. Libraries can support these initiatives through the digitisation of records, hosting Wikipedia edit-a-thons, and other activities.

  1. Libraries offer new equipment for users to try and to learn.

Many libraries also provide access to equipment that users would not be able to afford themselves. This can be as simple as a desktop computer or extend to specialist equipment such as cameras and 3D printers. While many of these devices would not be affordable for individuals to own and keep within their household, communal access through a library helps expand the possibilities of an individual to use and to build their digital skills around new ICT equipment.

As countries look to the digital economy as accelerators for their post-COVID recovery, skills-building and devices will play an essential part in the broader ecosystem of affordable and meaningful internet access.


Libraries are worldwide, but they need – and deserve – better support. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Library Map of the World counts 2.6 million libraries across six continents, but only 381,000 (⅔ of those reporting, and roughly 14% of the total) of those libraries say that they have internet access. Part of this challenge is the availability of data about libraries and their capacities: part of the challenge is connecting those that remain unconnected. If each library were connected to the internet, could expand the global footprint of such public access points nearly seven times over and could be transformational in the informational landscape for those who are currently unconnected or lack the financial means to buy their own connection.

Governments can do more to support libraries and their potential to expand meaningful connectivity. Libraries should be included in national broadband planning processes as stakeholders in consultations, as key institutions to include within targets for connectivity, and as priority opportunities to investment. This includes setting targets for meaningful connectivity. Governments can also sign the Every Community Connected pledge, which identifies libraries as essential to the post-Covid recovery.

Digital inclusion is the foundation of a scalable digital economy. At A4AI, we advocate for affordable and meaningful internet access for everyone precisely for this reason: without widespread access, the possibilities of the internet to help lift people out of poverty and for countries to reach the Sustainable Development Goals are inherently more limited. Realising this goal requires blending together different business models and investment strategies, including public access through libraries, to connect the world.

Teddy Woodhouse is a research manager at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). A4AI is a non-profit organisation, based in the United States, that represents the largest, global multi-stakeholder coalition that tries to drive down the price of broadband through policy and regulatory reform.

World Information Society Day: The Case for Public Access in Libraries Beyond 2020

During the 2003 and 2005 sessions of the UN-based World Summit on the Information Society, representatives from 175 countries charted a roadmap towards a digital society which would be open and accessible to all. A series of documents – the Geneva Plan of Action, WSIS Action Lines, the Tunis Commitment and Agenda – lay out the agreements and measures to overcome the digital divide between and within countries.

One of the key WSIS targets was connecting all public libraries with ICTs: as repositories of crucial information, public internet access points and learning hubs, libraries were among the actors that could help build the information society WSIS envisioned. This year marks the WSIS+15 milestone: an opportunity to take stock and reflect on what public access in libraries means today.

Over the years, public libraries have brought many new users online – with millions having accessed the internet for the very first time in a library. However, public access can sometimes be seen as a stepping stone towards individual use and subscription/device ownership – a transitional measure on the way to a more universally available home access.

But is that the case? What value can public access solutions offer as a complement to individual home or mobile access, rather than a temporary substitute? What shapes could they take in a post-COVID world, as we work to overcome the persistent digital divides?

Digital skills learning opportunities

For libraries and similar facilities, an important part of the public internet offer has long been the digital skills learning opportunities and on-site support for their users. A lack of digital skills can prevent people from going online even if access is available.

But the need for ICT skills goes beyond the connected/unconnected binary: once a person becomes an internet user (which could, of course, entail getting an individual subscription and device), their digital skills continue to impact both how they make use of connectivity and what outcomes they can achieve.

A safety net

Even when home and individual access is prioritised, public access facilities can be highly valuable – and valued – when such access is temporarily unavailable (on an individual level – e.g. among people experiencing homelessness; or community level – e.g. anchor institutions offering internet connectivity and electricity during emergency or disaster situations).

It is also worth considering whether, as some of the societal adaptations from analog to digital may be here to stay; and a UN/DESA brief points out that governments and economies may want to speed up the adoption of digital innovations to boost future resilience. This could mean that the cost of staying offline – as more and more public and economic activities go digital – may continue to rise, and so the need for alternatives to assuming private access grows.

The complement: keeping the costs down

Globally, mobile-only internet use is on the rise, and new subscriptions for mobile broadband are growing at a significantly faster rate than fixed broadband. While mobile broadband subscriptions and access devices may be comparatively more affordable, many mobile broadband users remain cost-conscious and limit their data use to keep the costs down. As a 2019 Alliance for Affordable Internet report points out, in such cases users can combine public and individual internet access, relying on the former for most of the data-intensive tasks.

And of course, while at the moment some Internet Service Providers are lifting data caps or postponing price raises, once these temporary measures are lifted public internet access can offer a free/low-cost alternative in case future price raises make individual access less affordable – especially in light of potential poverty and unemployment rises – as well as providing a back-stop that prevents private providers from over-charging.

A robust individual network

There may also be benefits to having the opportunity to access the Internet from several locations. Reisdorf et al (2020), for example, suggest that a broader range of internet access modes (home, mobile, library, work, etc) may be able to support a broader range of online activities, because different types of access more easily lend themselves to different tasks and activities. Fernandez et al (2019) also mention that breadth of internet access points could be particularly important for vulnerable communities, where a single point may become restricted or temporarily unavailable.

The COVID pandemic also pushes us to further consider our online privacy and data security, and what could be the role of public internet access in a post-COVID world – especially in libraries, places dedicated to upholding the privacy of their users. It could offer a connection and workstation that can help separate your data from pervasive advertisement tracking, profiling and data collection – and learning opportunities on how to protect your security and privacy online.

Helping deliver end-user connections

Finally, some libraries have been able to use their connectivity to deliver internet access to patrons’ homes or other in-demand locations, bringing their experience closer to that of individual connectivity. From offering Wi-Fi through bookmobiles (or even parking bookmobiles in areas with known connectivity issues), to mobile hotspot loans, to using TV WhiteSpace to set up remote hotspots for their communities.


These are just a few ways that public access in libraries can complement and add to private and individual subscriptions. Over the last few weeks, the challenges of the digital divide have been amplified manifold by the ongoing pandemic as work, study and socialising all moved online – and many who lack reliable home access have been further isolated. We have seen examples of libraries working to adapt and continue offering internet access whenever possible: for example, through WiFi in their parking lots, or even by offering access to library workstations with a strict safety protocol.

The social distancing measures in some areas begin to gradually soften, but we still don’t know how and for how long it will continue to affect the world. However, the pandemic has already shown us in no uncertain terms the full urgency to overcome the digital divides as soon as possible. All tools need to be mobilised to help bring the remaining billions online – and public internet access is part of a comprehensive approach to ensure inclusion.

2019 Internet Affordability Report: the Case for Public Access

Who is able to go online today – and how many can afford to access the internet? In October 2019, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) released a new installment of the annual Affordability Report – a research and analysis of how policies in lower- and middle-income countries affect the costs of internet connectivity for the population.
This year’s report emphasises that healthy broadband markets together with public access solutions – free or low-cost internet connections available in places such as libraries and telecenters – can expand connectivity and promote digital inclusion. As such, it is a great potential resource for library advocacy around public access.

The costs of connectivity remain a crucial barrier for those who do not have internet access. A4AI – a global coalition of businesses, governments and civil society actors – works to help deliver affordable internet access for all through research, advocacy, and engaging with governments and partners in different countries around the world.

The 2019 Internet Affordability report released by A4AI notes the progress that lower-income countries have made in bringing down the costs of internet access through various policy changes. However, overall progress is slow, and we are likely to be years or decades away from affordable and meaningful internet access for all.

The report suggests three key policy measures to bring down internet costs for end-users. Two focus on building a competitive and stable broadband market, but the third measure puts emphasis on public internet access as a crucial complement to these measures.

The case for public access

As the report explains, public internet access in places such as libraries and telecentres has several crucial advantages:

Bringing more people online and fostering digital inclusion

Public internet access offers connectivity for those who cannot afford retail prices. Public access facilities can help reach and accommodate the needs of specific groups which may have fewer opportunities to get online, such as rural residents, women, indigenous populations or people with disabilities.

It can create more demand for internet access: public access offers first-time users a way to get familiar with and learn the benefits of the digital world, and many users may later choose to get individual subscriptions.

For those who purchase data packages, public access can offer a way to lower the data costs: for example, many users choose to do data-intensive tasks (e.g. uploading pictures to social media) through a public connection, and only use their own data bundles for less data-heavy tasks (like chats) to keep the charges down.

Financial and commercial benefits

People can take advantage of public connectivity to make use of e-finance services and engage in e-commerce. Public access facilities create opportunities for people to engage in the digital economy (for example, offering people a way to make e-payments), and can also provide assistance and related services – for example, helping and training local entrepreneurs and helping them create websites for their businesses.

Health and education

Public access enables people to access educational and training opportunities, especially for those who many not have the opportunity to attend traditional classes and courses in educational facilities. Public access also allows more people to connect with the growing e-health systems – from making online appointments to accessing medical information and advice online.

The importance of ICT skills

The report highlights that it is crucial to provide public access solutions and simultaneously promote inclusive support for digital skills. It points to libraries and post offices as community spaces where such support can be provided.

Libraries work to realise the full potential of public access

The experience of many libraries shows how these benefits of public access can be realised in practice.

Public access remains an important part of the road towards achieving universal access. Public access can provide new opportunities and make a difference – the report offers stories of people connecting through university campus WiFi or a community network to access study materials, carry out their business online and connect with people.

Libraries deliver public internet access alongside ICT workstations, provide guidance for new users, and, in many cases, offer ICT skills training. That is why they can offer a low-cost and high-impact way to provide public internet access and realise its full potential in many areas, from e-health to digital and financial inclusion.