Here’s how we can get more people in Asia and the Pacific connected to the internet
Everyone should have reliable access to the internet. If we face another situation like COVID-19 in the future, enhanced internet connectivity will make us better prepared to handle it.
Around half the world’s population does not have access to internet. Most of the unconnected population are from economically challenged and vulnerable communities. Lack of infrastructure and costs are prohibiting them from being part of the digital network. Interestingly, in places where infrastructure and cost are not a problem, sections of the society, especially the older generation, still remain unconnected and are unable to enjoy the benefits of the internet.
With the COVID-19 lockdowns and restricted movement, people have realized the benefit of digital connectivity. People who used to access the internet just for leisure, are now finding it an essential service to survive. As more and more countries embark on online schooling, parents are desperately searching for suitable devices and affordable bandwidth.
But a sudden surge in demand does not create an adequate supply. It takes time and resources to build the infrastructure and operating mechanisms for affordable, quality internet service. Most governments rely on private telecom operators to manage connectivity – international and domestic. And for obvious reasons, the private sector focuses on the area where the demand is strongest, mainly urban areas.
A vast majority of rural areas and, sometimes even the urban areas, lack the infrastructure for basic connectivity. This is where an important role can be played by development partners, such as multilateral development banks, aid organizations and donor governments. Development partners can bring the funds to set up the infrastructure, coordinate across multiple countries to arrive at regional cost-effective solutions, and influence the policy decisions for universal internet access. A development partner must ensure affordable quality internet service to the general population though its engagement. Sometime, it’s not just the infrastructure investment, but many other factors that must be considered to achieve this goal.
Once a community gets access to better connectivity, people become
very dependent on the internet for their day-to-day activities.
Quality of internet service is directly linked to infrastructure, and related technology, whereas affordability is directly dependent on the cost of setting up and operating the infrastructure. Each of these factors must be adequately addressed during the investment assessment, otherwise the goal will never be achieved.
Global internet service is provided through a network of satellites and fiber optic cable infrastructure under the ocean and across the land mass. Fiber optic infrastructure is the most popular mode of connectivity and provides the lowest cost for service over a long period of time.
But it requires significantly large capital to create and then operate the system. Therefore, an optimum bandwidth demand is needed to make the investment financially viable. To date, development partners support a number of submarine cable systems around the world and this has helped reduce the bandwidth price for general population.
In areas where cable infrastructure is not financially viable, satellite-based internet service is the only option. Some technology companies are trying drones and high-altitude balloons to provide internet service in remote areas, but none are commercially available yet.
Once the international gateway is established, the local telecom operators use towers and other equipment to spread the coverage and maintain quality of service. Unless this infrastructure is in place, internet will not reach the actual users. In some instances, development partners have invested in local telecom operators so that their infrastructure can support the ‘last mile’ service.
Even a decade back, individuals needed a computer to access the internet. Much of the world’s population can now access internet through their smartphones. Importantly, the device is intuitive enough for anyone to learn its functionalities. In places where mobile data connectivity is limited, internet kiosks can serve as an access point for the communities. There has been some successful implementation of community access points in Africa and in Pacific islands.
Capital cost is a key component to determine the internet price for the end users. A country or community must explore all possible options to minimize the capital cost. There are examples of the regional consortium model reducing overall implementation cost by sharing the cost among consortium members. Some of the low-demand communities joined a nearby cable system to minimize their cost.
A consortium model takes more time for negotiation whereas joining a passing cable depends on the opportunity and interest from the third party. A development partner can work with industry experts to assess the situation and advise the country accordingly.
Infrastructure operating cost is generally proportional to capital cost. There is a tendency to cut the operating cost by not having adequate insurance and marine maintenance coverage for the submarine cable infrastructure. But any technical damage in the infrastructure will suddenly demand a large amount of resources. In most cases, it results in a long delay in service restoration, and directly impacts the economic activities.
Once a community gets access to better connectivity, people become very dependent on the internet for their day-to-day activities. Any sudden service disruption can cause havoc and will stall economic and social services. It is very important to have a backup option available. The alternate connection may not provide the same level of service but must be good enough to support critical activities in case the primary connection fails. The ‘fallback’ option will add to the overall cost of service, but it is extremely important for service continuity.
Many countries still have not recognized the internet to be an essential service for their citizens. A digital communication policy must ensure that every community is covered by the digital network and set guidelines on service quality. The policy then becomes the base for telecommunication legislation and regulation, as well as setting the boundaries for pricing and quality. The telecom regulator ensures a level playing field for the operators and facilitates fair competition to offer the best price to users.
Let’s hope that, with active involvement from development partners, everyone in the world soon gets the benefit of digital connectivity. We don’t wish to face another situation like COVID-19 , but if it happens enhanced internet connectivity will make us better prepared to handle it.