Main session: Inclusion
The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation presented important areas for action, one area of which is achieving universal connectivity by 2030. The Roadmap set a goal that ‘every person has safe and affordable access to the Internet, including meaningful use of digitally enabled services in line with the sustainable development goals’. In response to this globally shared goal, the session asked a significant question: What does digital inclusion and meaningful connectivity mean in practice? The panellists proposed diverse sets of actions necessary to achieve such universal connectivity and digital inclusion.
The conversation made it clear that digital inclusion is multifaceted. For Mr Mongi Marzoug (Senior VP Internet and Sustainable Energy Governance, Orange), digital inclusion is about access, digital skills, affordability of services, availability of local content, and actual usage of services. He noted that all of these points are necessary for meaningful connection to the Internet. For instance, even with network coverage, people will not be able to access the Internet if the service is too expensive.
Adding to Marzoug’s comment regarding affordability, Ms Sonia Jorge (Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Internet) urged telecom operators to provide unlimited data to ensure that everyone has access to the Internet everyday with enough data to do what they want to do. It may sound provocative and challenging; however, she pressed that Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury—it is now part of basic needs.
Mr Moctar Yedaly (Head Information Society Division, African Union Commission) shed light on an issue that is familiar to developing countries, namely, electricity. He called on the ICT infrastructure sector to co-operate with the electricity sector to ensure the foundation of digital inclusion because digital inclusion will never be achieved without a stable supply of electricity.
What are the concrete actions that need to be taken to achieve universal connectivity and digital inclusion? The panellists agreed that regulation reform is one of the most important actions. It should allow new and cost-effective approaches, such as infrastructure sharing, which enables the ICT sector and the electricity sector to collaborate and provide stable connectivity. Aligned with the idea that digital connectivity is a public good, she elaborated that the cost saved from infrastructure sharing should be distributed to reduce the cost of Internet services. In addition, better spectrum management will ensure connectivity for the population at large. Marzoug called for spectrum sharing among operators, while Jorge advocated for the allocation of a certain percentage of the spectrum as a public good, a not-for-profit connectivity. To this day, development agencies have offered governance models, regulatory frameworks, and licensing models to resource-limited countries. Yedaly recalled that most of these proposals were not taken seriously by policymakers because they did not take the local context into consideration, such as low literacy and a general reluctance of regulators to consider new approaches. To tailor the business and governance model to unique local needs, Mr Christian O'Flaherty (Regional Vice President - Latin America and The Caribbean, Internet Society) emphasised the importance of community-led initiatives. Developing countries will need to reform regulations to allow non-conventional community networks, with managers who understand the local context and who can produce more locally relevant content.
While half of the world cannot imagine a day without the Internet, many are not aware of and equipped with the technical knowledge to design, operate, and maintain networks. Ms Sylvia Cadena (Head of Programs, APNIC Foundation) pressed the importance of capacity building by saying that Internet connectivity is only as powerful as the engineers who are in the field. Both public and private actors need to invest in people to ensure digital inclusion in their communities. Mr Vint Cerf (Vice President & Internet Evangelist, Google) resonates with her argument, adding that developing knowledge among users on digital literacy (particularly on security and safety) will make the Internet a safer and more resilient space. Capacity development is even more important for developing countries in creating and sustaining a community-centred business and governance model of the Internet. It should train local individuals in network security and in making the system fit for the local context.