Even though there have been several definitions or listings of enablers to meaningful internet connectivity, which captures the overall essence of meaningfulness in digital access, the true definition of meaningful access remains contextual to users.
According to ITU Meaningful connectivity “Is a level of connectivity that allows users to have a safe, satisfying, enriching, and productive online experience at an affordable cost.” The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) theory for meaningful access brings together three pillars: affordability, meaningful connectivity, and a supportive social environment.
“Someone has meaningful access when they have affordable access to an internet connection of sufficient quality to be meaningful and they can use that connection in a supportive social environment that allows them to apply their full agency in how the internet affects their life.”
In its efforts to further complement connectivity in marginalized communities, the Local Access Networks Project (LocNet) convened by The Association for Progressive Communication (APC) and Rhizomatica is currently exploring local services for community-centred connectivity as essential to meaningful connectivity.
The research focuses on factors beyond connectivity that help shape local services in the context of the community and the ever-dynamic user patterns.
Since the inception of the program in 2018, the LocNet team has worked with implementing partners on community-level projects that were over and beyond connectivity. Among the local services so far identified include:
- Health and community care
- Territorial and environmental protection
- Agriculture and local production
- Education and capacity building
- Local and circular economies
- Language diversity and preservation
- Communication facilities
- Access to public services
These form complementary activities that some communities are already engaging in and some that most communities feel will help their communities to fully leverage connectivity.
In most urban areas, internet users measure their connectivity experience from a monolithic perspective, “quality of their connectivity”; How many mbps are they getting from their service provider, what are the upload and download speeds, and how many downtimes do they experience at any specific period of subscription, all of which goes to determine their choice of the service provider.
Moving away from measuring the quality of connectivity, users in rural areas have broader challenges ranging from mainly a lack of options when it comes to service providers, low-economic power that affects their purchasing power both in terms of data bundles and devices, lack of or limited digital skills, and concerns of online safety which in rural Africa are propagated by social, cultural and religious norms.
Primary Challenges to Meaningful Internet Access
Lack of Investment in Infrastructure
A lack of investment in infrastructure contributes highly to the lack of options for service providers within rural and marginalized communities. Infrastructure in this case means roads, electrical grids, and telecommunications equipment. Areas with no power grid and poor or non-existent road network indicate a low purchasing power therefore telecoms companies shy away from investing in such areas due to perceived low return on investment.
In these areas, the luckiest scenario is the presence of mobile network operators who leverage phone ownership and therefore the probability that individuals will buy airtime to call.
In such cases, the prices for internet bundles are too high for users to consistently afford and therefore they intermittently purchase data bundles for non-data-intensive tasks like WhatsApp and Facebook messaging. According to this report by GSMA, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where mobile broadband coverage continues to outpace mobile usage. The coverage gap stood at 4% and 44% for the usage gap in 2022.
The factors below contribute to this usage gap.
The affordability of both internet-enabled devices and data bundles is a major hurdle for people in rural and economically disadvantaged urban areas. This is mainly due to their low purchasing power and competing needs such as food, health, and education. While mobile companies have come up with cheap mobile phone devices, access to computers allows users to have a richer experience beyond messaging.
Despite the rapid growth in mobile internet adoption, the affordability of an entry-level device across all low and middle-income countries (LMICs) is equivalent to 16% of average monthly income. This is equivalent to 24% of the average monthly income for women, compared to 13% for men.
Digital Literacy Skills
Lack of or limited basic and digital literacy skills restricts users from having a meaningful experience online whether that be operating devices or adopting technology to socio-economic factors like education, employment, food security, and access to health. This factor also exacerbates technophobia where individuals fear to use or experiment with technology. A lack of digital literacy skills further exposes users to online safety threats.
Cyber Security and Safety
Cultural norms and resulting myths, censorship and surveillance, online harassment, cybersecurity threats, and lack of digital literacy skills and awareness all affect how users can engage online. Online gender-based violence and cultural barriers continue to keep many people offline, the majority being women and minorities, who are predisposed to online violence, consequently limiting the diversity of voices and perspectives online.
The digital economy has necessitated online transactions such as mobile money payments, online banking, and e-commerce. Scams resulting from online transactions have scared lots of users from engaging in the digital economy. A lack of awareness about online safety measures can leave individuals susceptible to online threats. The provision of connectivity must go hand in hand with awareness campaigns to empower users to navigate the internet safely and protect themselves online.
Secondary Challenges to Meaningful Access
While I am categorizing these as secondary factors, they are catalysts to the enablers above and therefore pivotal to the ecosystem of meaningful internet connectivity.
Lack of relevant content
The availability of online content that users can relate to is directly related to inclusivity or exclusivity of users online. In the case of rural communities, language is a major barrier to users’ ability to leverage available online information.
Still on the relevance of content but in the aspect of languages, English accounts for over half the content online, despite that only around 16% of the world’s population speaks this language. According to this report by ISOC, despite there being over 7,000 spoken languages worldwide (Africa has about 2,200 languages), Unicode – the standard for text and emoticons – only supports approximately 150.
Further, of the 2200 languages spoken in Africa, only 12 have been added to Google Translate. Content needs to be tailor-made to the needs of users.
According to this ITU report, the relationship between content consumption and content production is two-way, the more people go online, the more content creators and service providers are incentivized to create additional content and services.
The digital gender divide results from disparities in access to digital technologies. In many rural settings, women have less access to online devices and platforms compared to their male counterparts resulting from social, cultural, and religious norms, limited economic power that lowers their purchasing power, limited access to education opportunities leading to lack or or limited basic and digital literacy skills, and technophobia which results from cultural conditioning and a lack of digital skills.
A lack of inclusivity of women’s voices in policymaking can greatly limit perspectives on issues affecting women online such as Online Gender Based Violence (OGBV) which results in hostile environments online that limit participation. Policies should be created from a multi-stakeholder perspective, including all relevant parties to bring context to policies.
A lack of or presence of negative policies can affect infrastructure investment, taxation of telecom equipment, access to spectrum, innovation, trade policies as well national competition policies. It creates an uneven playing field in telecoms service provision which affects the goal of universal access.
There is no one-size-fits-all policy and policies need to remain contextual to the particular conditions existing in different countries. There is a dedicated multi-stakeholder working group of experts, the IGF Policy Network on Meaningful Access (PNMA) which provides an in-depth look at why achieving meaningful and universal Internet access remains so challenging, despite years of efforts by policymakers and other actors from all stakeholder groups. Find their 2021, 2022 and 2023 reports here.
Innovation can reduce the cost of infrastructure, and the price of devices, enhance dynamic spectrum access models, and increase the quality of connectivity. Most technology design happens outside of Africa. The fact that Africans are majorly experiencing technology from a secondary perspective puts limits to how far users can meaningfully interact online and use ICTs to benefit communities socio-economically. We need policies that encourage and reward innovation. Home-grown solutions will bring the prices of digital devices down.
Digital technology needs to be inclusive for it to be meaningful for all. It involves making digital platforms, devices, and content accessible to users with diverse backgrounds despite their ability or disability, and creating an online environment where everyone can participate, contribute, and access information.
Digital accessibility is a catalyst for economic inclusion by ensuring that people with disabilities can access online portals for education, jobs, and trading opportunities.
There is a huge gap in social inclusivity of persons with disabilities in many African cultures and this affects how we include this marginalized community in digital spaces as well.
Equitable access allows everyone to connect and engage in the digital world and this can be done through inclusive language and assistive technologies, such as screen readers, voice recognition software, and alternative input devices, towards empowering individuals with disabilities to use digital tools effectively. Check out our Accessibility 101 Guidelines for Organizational Compliance.
For connectivity to be meaningful, it has to be holistic, considering all factors above with a contextual view of each. Community networks are one of the models exploring meaningful internet access because their very nature is community autonomy towards governance and ownership of the digital infrastructure.
When there is a lack of community engagement, initiatives die. Beyond the goal of universal digital connectivity, it is pivotal that connectivity initiatives integrate meaningful access measures as a sustainability approach.
This is a series of our publications on Community Networks.