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.
- For example, libraries are well-positioned to run targeted outreach programmes to broaden access opportunities for underserved groups. From libraries in the Philippines building partnerships to deliver ICT, digital skills and assistive technology use training for people with disabilities to computer literacy classes for women in a Tunisian library, they have a long tradition of helping underserved populations get online.
- To help people take part in the digital economy, libraries can offer learning opportunities on the use of online financial services (like the Lyuben Karavelov regional library in Bulgaria), and help local entrepreneurs – for example, farmers – use ICT for their business (for example, a local library in Edenville, South Africa).
- Libraries also provide access to e-learning platforms and resources, and often develop their own digital learning materials, programs and courses (for instance, the Math-Whizz program launched by the Kenya National Library Service Nakuru Library). They can establish partnerships to broaden the range of e-learning opportunities available to their communities, and ensure their financial sustainability (like the Massive Open Online Varsity programme in the City of Johannesburg libraries).
- Similarly, libraries rely on ICT and internet access to help with their patrons’ health information needs. For example, a Global Libraries Initiative project in Botswana saw computers with public internet access installed in 72 public libraries; and a follow-up study showed that 84% of library users placed a high value on the role that such library services play in providing access to health information.
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.