The online symposium on the value of Internet Openness at the time of COVID-19 is a joint outcome of the Internet Governance Forum coalition on Net Neutrality and Community Connectivity. This is the third article in the series. Read all the articles in the symposium here.

By Dhanaraj Thakur, Teddy Woodhouse, and Sonia Jorge, Alliance for Affordable Internet

The public health, social, economic, and political challenges that we now face around the world because of the COVID19 pandemic are severe. What has also become obvious in a short space of time is that this global phenomenon does not impact everyone in the same way – with the digital divide representing a key difference for many. One of the ways that people everywhere are trying to cope is by accessing information, entertainment, and other content online, as well as by studying and working from a safe location. However, half of the world who are offline today cannot access these benefits. On current trends, the offline are coming online at slower rates than before.

Indeed, it is especially important now for governments, the private sector, and civil society to accelerate efforts to achieve universal internet access. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) recently shared a set of policy recommendations for doing just that during the pandemic with the position that internet access is an essential public good. This includes providing free or subsidized devices to public institutions, low income households and under-served groups (e.g., women, rural and remote populations); making it easier for smaller companies to enter the market and alternative models like community networks to thrive; increasing data allowances on all mobile data packages; and opening up public-facing wifi so residents in close proximity can log on to free wifi in areas covered by an operator.

Another way in which existing inequalities mediate the impact of the pandemic is that in addition to whether or not a person has access is the kind of access they have. Last year, A4AI started a consultation and research process to develop a new definition of access called meaningful connectivity. Based on research in 3 countries (Colombia, Indonesia, and Ghana which included nationally representative household surveys, focus groups, and interviews), it developed this definition based on having a connection that allows people to use the internet in a way that benefits them. This includes having a fast enough connection for video for study, work or entertainment; having a device that is multifunctional and portable; having a connection that avoids data rationing, and being able to use the internet frequently.

As a result we proposed the following minimum primarily technical standards for users to have meaningful connectivity: having a 4G mobile broadband connection; a smartphone; a fixed wired or wireless connection at work, home, or place of study; and using the internet everyday.

Our research showed that the use cases that people viewed as important to making meaningful use of the internet relied on these components. For them the combination of all four components was what made internet use meaningful. More importantly, this definition points to crucial avenues for targeted policy responses that can help reduce what is now an emerging new digital divide between the poorly connected (those who only use a single application or website  once a month) and the hyper-connected (those who watch streaming movies and work remotely everyday).

In fact, the current pandemic has highlighted this new divide in stark terms. Online video classes from a place of study or home will require more than what a simple text-based messaging app may need.  However, simply counting both types of connectivity as the same (which is what the current definition of internet use does) means that policies that simply try to improve access in general will exacerbate these divides. Instead, meaningful connectivity can allow policymakers to better understand which communities and groups do not have the right kinds of access, and in fact make all their citizens better prepared to meet the pro-longed challenges of future pandemics, natural disasters, or other emergencies.

One important requirement that we have proposed for any form of meaningful connectivity is access to the open internet.  This is important as it conforms with A4AI’s position that access to the open internet is key to economic growth and human development and is part of its guiding principles and good practices. In practice, this means the assessment of meaningful connectivity following the four components above will preclude artificial restrictions (either economic or political; e.g., zero-rating or excessive censorship) on internet access and rejects economic and legal barriers to posting and creating online. Thus, an individual should be able to use the internet based on their own volition. This also means precluding partial or full network shutdowns and blocks of specific internet based services or platforms.

In terms of measurement we can use surveys to assess each of the 4 meaningful connectivity components (e.g., by asking people if they have a 4G connection, smartphone, are daily users, etc.). Nationally representative surveys of this type should also include questions on access to the open internet and can include for example whether the user relies solely on a zero-rated plan to get online, has experienced an internet shutdown, or restriction to a particular app within the last three months (the typical time period for assessing internet use). People that confirm that their internet use is restricted in any of these ways would then not be eligible to be included in the count of those with meaningful connectivity.

This is important as it can also point policymakers and others to the proportion of their populations that cannot realize meaningful connectivity because of a lack of access to the open internet. It can also reinforce how such restrictions undermine the efficacy of internet use during a crisis such as the pandemic.

Note that while a nationally representative survey is not the only way to assess restrictions on internet use (e.g., we can also refer to publicly available data on incidents of internet shutdowns), it is critical that any measurement of meaningful connectivity (and by extension restrictions on access to the open internet) be gender disaggregated data. This is needed because of the large existing global gender gap in internet use, which cannot be addressed without this kind of data.

Building on these ideas, A4AI plans to develop detailed policy guidelines that can help governments and the private sector improve the levels of meaningful connectivity in their countries. Such policies must be specific to the context of each country and can include targets that encourage gradual improvement over time (e.g., increasing 4G use at appropriate levels across both urban and rural areas over a 5 year period). It should be clear however, that such policy recommendations can start with commitments to the open access to the internet in order for us to reduce the divide between the poorly connected and the hyper-connected, and enable meaningful connectivity for all.