Affordability a major hurdle in ensuring equitable access
Today, access to the internet and mobile phones is critical for people everywhere. Still, 40% of the world’s population has no access to the internet[i], with countries such as India (50%), Ethiopia (81%), and Brazil (29%) having significant portions of their population classified as “unconnected”[ii]. In terms of mobile telephony, while access has increased significantly—there were an estimated 5 billion cellphone users as of 2019, only 45% of mobile phone users in developing countries have access to a smartphone.
Affordability is one of the major barriers keeping many people, especially those living with low incomes in developing countries, from having reliable and meaningful access. This has consequences in terms of people’s ability to engage in e-learning, online working, and access to online social services such as health care and employment support.
According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), broadband prices have decreased in the past five years in the countries they survey, with “the average cost of 1GB data declining by more than half since 2015, from 7.0% to 3.1% of average monthly income,” and several countries moving closer to the UN Broadband Commission’s “1 for 2” affordability threshold (1GB data for no more than 2% of average monthly income) [iii], which is certainly good news. Still, A4AI recommends stronger government policy interventions to continue to bring down prices and to help guarantee broader access, especially considering the issues brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. One country moving rapidly in the direction of greater affordability is Argentina. A new decree to guarantee affordable access came into force on January 1, 2021. The Prestacion Basica Universal y Obligatoria (PBU), which roughly translates to Basic, Universal, and Mandatory Service, enables low-income individuals, families, and community organizations to access internet, telephony (both mobile and analogue), and cable television services. For example, users will be able to access packages for as low as ARS 200 (some USD 2.40) per 1 GB of data. Remarkably, Argentina’s national telecom regulator stated that the purpose of the PBU was to “guarantee access to ICTs as a human right through affordable and reasonable prices for all citizens and for the public good”[iv]. These achievements are reflected in Argentina’s Affordability Drivers Index, which saw the country significantly increase its performance since 2017.
Crucially, the implementation of this policy is the result of years of advocacy from Argentinian civil society. As Leonardo Felix, President of WACC’s Latin America regional association, explains, “hundreds of civil society organizations—including WACC—have advocated for the democratization of communications in the country since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980’s” and this new policy is in some ways one of the results of these efforts. However, Felix warns that civil society must remain vigilant and active in its advocacy efforts to prevent this gain from being eroded in the future, as this type of policy challenges power dynamics within the Argentine telecom sector. Felix’s assessment is in line with the recommendations issued by A4AI, which highlight that one of the ways to make national broadband plans more effective is for such plans to be developed in consultation with all social actors, including civil society. In this context, WACC celebrates the implementation of Argentina’s PBU and invites governments, industry, and civil society everywhere to work together towards greater affordability and access for all.
Photo: Connie Guanziroli/Shutterstock