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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.