This text is part of the #FASTAfrica Communications Toolkit
Policy documents aren’t just empty words on paper. There is a direct correlation between the ICT policies of a country and the speed, cost and reach of Internet access. FASTAfrica is an opportunity to engage those who can affect change in dialogue about what policies are needed.
What have your leaders promised?
At the international level African leaders have made promises and commitments for greater Internet access, for instance as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At the local level, it’s up to individual countries to decide how it happens.
Aside from the occasional public uproar over a surveillance bill or online censorship battle, the ICT policies of your country may not have received much scrutiny. Have you seen them? Are there already civil society groups engaging in the formulation of the policies? There is probably scope for more public engagement.
What policies can advance universal, fast and affordable Internet?
It can be overwhelming to think about “universal access” when only 20% of Africans are online, but the good news is that there are simple policy steps that governments can take to increase access and affordability quickly. The demands you focus on depend on what is most important and winnable in your country, but some basics include:
10 Policy Recommendations
- Get governments and donors to step up efforts. Governments should convene civil society, the technical community, and business to revise (or create) national broadband plans or ICT strategies. These plans must establish a clear agenda and roadmap with time-bound targets for increasing Internet access and empowerment, and they must allocate the necessary funds. Multilateral banks and other donors must increase their ICT funding to ensure a more equal spread of “digital dividends”. (More detail)
- Agree on what is “affordable”. A4AI’s recent Affordability Report shows that in order for marginalised populations currently priced out of the digital revolution to afford access, we must work toward a “1 for 2” affordability target — 1GB of mobile broadband priced at 2% or less of average monthly income. At this price level, the majority of people in most countries can afford regular access. Previous affordability targets have been higher.
- Invest in public access solutions. The Internet is not like a vaccine that works after just one injection. Its benefits increase with regular use. Even with lower prices, if we rely on market mechanisms alone, a large segment of women, young people and the poor will still have to ration their Internet use. Closing the digital divide will require digital skills training for more people, and enabling regular access through offers of community WiFi and free or subsidised Internet in community centres, schools, etc.
- Make better use of Universal Service and Access Funds. In many countries, there are large funds earmarked for connecting the unconnected that are sitting unused. Governments must spend the billions that are sitting unused in these funds, and ensure the funds are used on projects that will benefit those potential users that need it most.
- Settle on fair and transparent ICT taxes. Governments must reduce “luxury” tariffs on ICT devices and services, excess royalties on technology patents, multiple sales taxes on airtime, and other taxes that deter long-term growth of local tech entrepreneurship and increase costs for users. “Royalty stacking” on devices, for example, can increase the cost of a smartphone by as much as 30%. An approach that considers the jobs and economic growth produced through a diversified ICT sector — and ensures that a fair share of the revenues stay in the country — will benefit all.
- Make getting women online a top priority. Web Foundation research in urban slums in nine developing countries shows that women are 50% less likely than men to be online, and 30-50% less likely to use the Internet for personal empowerment. We need policies that focus specifically on connecting women with concrete targets on digital gender equality — backed by adequate budget allocations. Donors and UN agencies should work with governments to ensure that women’s organisations are consulted on the design of ICT plans and programmes with clear, costed measures.
- Make better use of existing ICT infrastructure. Telecommunications companies should allow competitors access, at reasonable market prices, to costly infrastructure, such as towers and cables, and facilitate sharing or trading of spectrum (the chunks of the airwaves used to beam the Internet) as well as unlicensed use of low-value spectrum for public benefit (e.g. community WiFi). This will improve connections and reduce costs for providers, which in turn will allow for lower costs and better service for end-users.
- Adopt the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. This document expands on principles of human rights, extending them into the digital age via 13 clear principles. It offers important policy guidance on digital rights that the African Union and all its member states should adopt as a guiding framework for policy and legal reforms to encourage innovation and freedom of expression online, protect Internet users against cybercrime and hate speech, and establish transparent, necessary and proportionate limits on state use of digital surveillance powers.
- Aid and lending for Internet access should be decoupled from cybersecurity negotiations. Many governments often use national security to justify the control of political communications and cross-border content generally, passing hasty and ill-informed laws with little public debate. While ensuring the safety of Internet users is important, donors should not press for quick adoption of cybersecurity laws, but rather invest in and support processes such as the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (above) and equivalent national level policy dialogue.
- Implement the Africa Data Consensus. Governments should take steps to open their data for all to scrutinise and reuse, particularly ICT data. The Africa Data Consensus, which was adopted by the High Level Conference on Data Revolution of the African Union and UN Economic Commission in 2015, states that “Official data belong to the people and should be open to all. They should be open by default.”
For more research and policy recommendations, check out the resources produced by groups like the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Research ICT Africa, the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, the Internet Society, and CIPESA.