In 2019, 53.6% of the global population had access to the Internet. That means that 46.4% of the population – 3.6 billion people – are still unconnected. Access to ICTs is part of the Sustainable Development Agenda, which commits to ‘significantly increase access to ICTs and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’ (Goal 9.c).

Individuals using the Internet 2005-2019

While access to the Internet has grown tremendously since 2005, there is still much more to be done to connect the unconnected. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 shows a large disparity between countries in regard to access to the Internet: Over 80% of the population in developed countries is online compared to 45% in developing countries and 20% in the least developed countries.

The Internet consists of thousands of networks. In order to exchange data between users, these networks need to connect with one another. Internet access therefore depends on reliable, efficient, and cost-effective interconnections between networks. These interconnections are achieved by voluntary and independently negotiated agreements between Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

To connect to Internet networks, users and companies pay ISPs for Internet access and services. Typically ISPs have to cover the following expenses from the fees collected from customers:

  • Cost of telecommunication expenses and Internet bandwidth to connect to major Internet hubs.
  • Cost of IP addresses obtained from Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) or Local Internet Registries (LIRs). An IP address is needed by a device to access the Internet.
  • Cost of equipment, software, and maintenance of their physical installations.

Increasingly, the Internet access business is complicated by the regulatory requirements of governments, such as data-retention rules. More regulation leads to more expenses which can be either passed through to Internet users or buffered by reduced profit for the ISP itself.

One way in which access can be improved is the introduction of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). IXPs are usually established to keep Internet traffic within smaller communities (e.g. city, region, or country), in order to avoid unnecessary routing through remote geographical locations. As IXPs keep local Internet traffic within the country, the usage and costs of international bandwidth can therefore be reduced, which makes access more affordable.

Many developing countries do not have IXPs, which means that a considerable part of Internet traffic is routed through another country. This phenomenon directly impacts relatively slower Internet speeds and higher costs of service in these countries.

Some of the challenges in establishing IXPs include difficulties in developing trust and mutual understanding between participants as well as a lack of an Internet-connectivity enabling environment, including investment and tax constraints and complicated rules for network deployment, to name a few. Various initiatives seek to establish IXPs in developing countries, for example the Internet Society’s Deploy360 Programme.

Currently, over 300 IXPs are active around the world.

IXPs map

Universal access is a frequently mentioned concept in discussions about global development. Although it is agreed to be the cornerstone of any digital development policy, differing perceptions of the nature and scope of policies aiming to achieve universal access remain. The question of universal access at the global level remains largely an open issue, and depends mainly on the readiness of developed countries to invest in the realisation of this goal, as well as on the policy environment in developing countries. Still, the importance of universal access is agreed upon in many international documents, such as the WSIS+10 Outcome Document.

Recently, many initiatives have been launched, often through public-private partnerships, to increase Internet access. Some of these initiatives focus on the traditional means of connection by constructing cables and building telecom infrastructure in areas considered unprofitable to telcos. Others focus on less traditional methods, such as building Internet-disseminating satellites (e.g. SpaceX) and balloons (e.g. Project Loon). In particular, the potential of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites has been emphasised. Because they are in the low-Earth orbit, they have lower latency (they can send and return data more quickly) and can enable access in remote and sparsely populated areas.

The basic ability to connect to the Internet is a precondition for access. Still, the definition of access is believed by some to be significantly broader and should take into account the quality of access. In this regard, the WSIS+10 Outcome Document calls for ‘an evolving understanding of what constitutes access, emphasising the quality of that access. We acknowledge that speed, stability, affordability, language, local content, and accessibility for persons with disabilities are now core elements of quality’.

A related issue is zero-rating; the provision of free-of-charge, ‘basic’ Internet services to end users. Several major service providers have partnered with mobile network operators to deliver these low-data-usage services. An example of these services is the project operated by Facebook and its partners. Although zero-rating has the objective of providing affordable access, it has come under criticism. A study has shown that countries that allow its use see average data prices increase over time. The practice is therefore not only accused of leading to additional costs for the consumer but also of hampering net-neutrality, the principle that ISPs should treat all data traffic equally. It therefore raises web development concerns as it gives preferential treatment to dominant web services (i.e. more data traffic to such services) compared to local competitors.

Other development and economic issues also affect access, such as the question of the redistribution of revenue generated by the Internet. On one hand, telecommunication operators aim for higher income, arguing that they need to invest more in upgrading telecommunication infrastructure. On the other, content companies – the main drivers of the Internet boom – argue that access providers already charge end users enough for Internet access.

A related issue concerns over-the-top services such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Netflix, and Skype, to name a few. National regulators in several countries are faced with the question of how to regulate these services, amid increasing pressure by operators.

The economic model of connectivity has also been challenged. Many developing countries have been complaining about the unfavourable economic conditions of the Internet economy. Internet access has a direct impact on economic development. For instance, rural farmers could use online services to check market prices, get weather information, and discover where to get better and cost-effective farm inputs to improve their yield. However, the cost of data in most developing countries is on the high side, therefore offsetting the potential developmental gains that the Internet can afford. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI)’s Affordability Report tracks the cost of the Internet around the world and advocates through country coalitions for Internet costs to be driven down to ensure meaningful access.

An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of the Internet or of electronic communications, making them inaccessible or effectively unusable. Shutdowns can be nationwide or location-specific, and are often implemented to exert control over the flow of information. They can also be partial, such as blocking certain websites and/or social media platforms, or take the form of a total Internet blackout, in which citizens are unable to access the Internet in its entirety.

Internet shutdowns directly affect the Internet access required to drive economic activities, preventing businesses from conducting their daily activities and negatively impact foreign investments, employment, productivity, and sales. They also affect traditional fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of expression, right to access of information, right to freedom of assembly, and right to development.

In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council unequivocally condemned ‘measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online’ and called on all states ‘to refrain from and cease such measures.’ Similar calls are regularly made by UN bodies, Internet Without Borders, Freedom House, Access Now, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Data from activist organisation AccessNow for 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 shows an increase in the number of Internet shutdowns. In 2016, 75 Internet outages were recorded worldwide by the organization, while in 2019 the number increased significantly, amounting to a total of 213 shutdowns. The most common official justification for ordering shutdowns in 2019 was ‘fighting fake news, hate speech, or content promoting violence.’ Netblocks, using their Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST) estimated the global cost of major Internet shutdowns for 2019 at US$8.05 billion.