Internet fragmentation: Getting next 4 billion online

8 Dec 2016 13:00h - 14:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 11th Internet Governance Forum]

Dr Robert Pepper, Facebook, introduced the session and explained its interactive format. After the invited panellists shared their key observations, the participants of the workshop were divided into three working subgroups:

  1. capacity building for government – good policy;
  2. capacity building for people;
  3. good infrastructure. In the last block the subgroups have reconvened and shared results of their brainstorming.

Ms Christine Ardia, National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) – Egypt, gave the perspective of developing countries. On a general level, Ardia listed the quality of services, affordability (prices), and the language aspect of the Internet as main factors that support fragmentation. Practical examples included zero rating and the second class experience, the emergence of cloud and IoT (Services are coming quicker than policies are moving), and app economy and the OTT issue.

Ms Verna Weber, OECD, presented a concept used by the OECD that studies degrees of Internet openness rather than Internet fragmentation. This Framework distinguishes four basic pillars, technical elements, economic elements, social elements, and other factors like cybersecurity. Weber identified the competition as a very powerful tool for influencing the affordability of access.

Mr Jimson Olufuye, African ICT Alliance, highlighted three practical problems that support Internet fragmentation: corruption; a difference in the quality and category of broadband services; and a gap between the government and the private sector. The private sector has resources and is ready to deploy infrastructure in under-served areas but government endorsement is needed. Olufuye strongly supported the idea to enable poor people to connect even with quality limits or negative sides of limited services. It is important is to let people start using the Internet.

Ms Karen Rose, Internet Society, said that two key themes of the current agenda of ISOC are increasing in relevance. These are Internet access, and the need to improve Internet security and trust. She added that a new digital divide has appeared. The disparities between different countries, genders, and social groups mean that people cannot meaningfully participate in the Internet. There is a concern that this issue will grow in the future. Rose noted that there is potential for slowing investment in new infrastructure once basic access is achieved. A new divide will occur in the future, once people are online.

Ms Alison Gillwald, Research ICT Africa, warned against digital inequality. Some people technically have access to the Internet but do not have it because of affordability. She suggested we should encourage any innovations that bring people online. Whether it is zero services, limited cap, 3G, emergency services, etc. People will not be online on equal terms but will at least experience the online world.

Ms Sorina Teleanu, DiploFoundation, gave examples from Romania. The country experiences a huge disparity between the quality of access in cities and rural areas. Public-private partnerships could help in order to build better infrastructure in these areas. Other factors influencing fragmentation are government blocking on a DNS level (collateral damage), geo-blocking, and insufficient support of different language scripts.

The interactive part of the session facilitated in-depth discussion by all participants of the workshop with the aim of finding some practical tools for decreasing fragmentation. Three discussion subgroups were created based on the introductory needs: an infrastructure group, a people capacity building group, and a government capacity building group.

The infrastructure group described the importance of community networks when the private sector is not able to accommodate. With this model the community tends to be more proactive. The sense of ownership enables better maintenance and operational aspect of such networks. It leads to capacity building as people are not only passive customers but have an active role.

The people capacity building group identified following proposals:

  • Language support. Need for more non-Latin scripts to be supported on the Internet and for people to use them.
  • Awareness campaign. Building skills is not enough. Rising awareness of the content available on the Internet will drive the demand.
  • Grow the skills and confidence of people by creating content. Social media could be an initial starting point.

 The government capacity building group came up with several proposals:

  • Improve institutions. Institutions such as regulators may not be able to push back against some of the big incumbent players in the market.
  • Improve education programmes and support teacher training programmes.
  • Decrease affordability obstacles. Governments should make space in the budget for Internet accessibility.
  • Sustainability. Governments should monitor their investments and minimise one-time projects without perspectives for long-term sustainability.

Pepper concluded that it was a very intriguing result of a bottom-up approach. The topics of the subgroups verified some of the ISOC strategies from the Policy framework for enabling Internet access

by Radek Bejdák