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Universal, Affordable Internet Access: From 'Why?' to 'How?'

IEEE Standards Association, @ieeesa

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By Karen McCabe, Senior Director, Technology Policy and International Affairs, IEEE Standards Association

Not long ago, the focus of conversation about universal, affordable Internet access was "why?" Why should extending access to billions more people around the world be considered a matter of much importance?

That argument is over. Conventional wisdom now largely acknowledges the linkage between universal, affordable Internet access and the wellbeing of people worldwide, and the proof is found in the shift in emphasis in the global conversation from "why?" to "how?" How do we make it happen, with about half of humanity still not connected?

Given the complex landscape of geographic markets, regulatory environments and behavioral norms to still be confronted in the campaign toward universal, affordable Internet access, many different technologies and strategies will play roles in achieving success. What is common across these variables is the need for unprecedented cross-disciplinary collaboration today to remove roadblocks and accelerate cost-efficient progress toward the goal.

Global Technologies, Local Solutions

More detailed understanding of the landscape of local technology and policy requirements for extending access is necessary now to map a path toward universal, affordable Internet access.

Not only is the range of connectivity among regions and countries wide, connectivity can vary substantially even within a single country. Rural and urban regions, for example, represent very different challenges. Fixed, wireless and satellite technology solutions will all be needed to account for the range of differences in population density, geography and topology. In addition, regulations around the world today tend to be written more in alignment with urban needs.

Another important obstacle to extending connectivity today is cost. In many underserved or unserved markets, high cost discourages users to adopt available services or providers to introduce offerings. The Alliance for Affordable Internet reported in February 2016, "Without immediate and urgent action, the world will miss the newly agreed global goal of universal Internet access by 2020."

Encouraging more providers and more competition throughout the value chain of providing connectivity could help drive cost reductions. Are there opportunities for TV whitespaces to be better leveraged in expanding access? Can governments be persuaded to subsidize access in some markets, and/or can device cost be lowered? Is the cost of extending access to the unconnected being kept artificially high by high taxes or permit fees—throttling growth in connectivity (and, ironically, government revenues)? Making connectivity more affordable, not less, promotes overall economic growth.

Extending connectivity alone, however, will not automatically drive demand for its use and yield the hoped-for progress toward the United Nations' 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Content of local and cultural interests and circumstances, as well as in local language, is critically important to spurring usage, and cultivating local expertise, engineering capacity and leadership skills is vital to project sustainability. In these ways, advancing locally defined solutions leveraging globally interoperable, standards-based technologies would help avoid "drive-by" development pitfalls, in which a project in an underserved or unserved community might be initiated but is not then comprehensively managed, promoted and maintained and actually used over time.

Common Needs Across Regions

Stakeholders from across disciplines together have been exploring these types of requirements as global interest has mounted around universal, affordable Internet access. For example, on 5-6 October 2016, the IEEE Internet Initiative, in cooperation with Internet Society, People Centered Internet and World Bank Group, hosted Internet Inclusion: Global Connect Stakeholders Advancing Solutions in Washington, D.C. Like its predecessor event in April 2016 and a regional event in Delhi, India, in September 2016, this multi-stakeholder workshop discussed network technical, regulation and build-out acceleration options for connecting the next billion, with a focus on exploration of associated challenges and real-world solutions. Engineers, scientists and industry leaders from around the world joined with global policy experts to source real-world, region-specific opportunities. Common themes across markets' technical, policy and financing needs are emerging through such conversations.

Widely shared technical needs include strong networking engineering expertise to coach project leaders in individual unconnected markets in network designs and best practices. Development of a "Connectivity Corps"-type function—in a vein similar to that of the Peace Corps—might be a valuable undertaking. Also, there is a need to define economical and equitable ways to quickly reach the greatest numbers of new users in a region by connecting community institutions for public access.

On the policy front, stakeholders agree on the need to reduce tax and regulatory burden on connectivity and investment in information and communications technologies (ICT). Simpler processes and less expensive fees associated with permitting for connectivity projects would help—as would wide-scale adoption of a "Dig Once" policy to infrastructure expansion, in which underground fiber links are installed as part of road, railway, pipeline, utility or energy distribution installations, at low marginal cost of bandwidth relative to overall architecture.

Of course, increased investment in the form of subsidies, tax and financing would encourage expansion of connectivity. To help make that happen, more data in the form of evidence-based studies and economic analyses are needed to validate the concept that investing in connectivity drives economic growth and other broad societal benefits. And then there must be a commitment to data-driven outcomes.


With the global conversation around universal, affordable Internet access having shifted from why connect to how—and with about half of humanity still to be reached—more sharing of challenges, opportunities, requirements and lessons learned across traditionally "silo-ed" disciplines is crucial to connecting those who are being left behind.

About the Author
At IEEE, Karen McCabe leads efforts to build and connect communities working in the technology policy ecosystem, where her focus is on the development and promotion of collaborative strategies that produce impactful outcomes among muliti-stakeholders to help advance technology for society and humanity benefit. McCabe has over 20 years of experience working at the nexus of mission-driven organizations, industry, NGO and government bodies to raise awareness, to educate and to build capacity among stakeholders in the technology sphere.

Through her career, McCabe has focused on projects and initiatives to expand global footprint, build communities, develop and execute integrated communications and global outreach programs and build and nurture relationships. During the last 20 years, she has held various leadership and senior management positions in the technology sector, with a specific focus in the global standards and technology development domain that is rooted in openness, transparency and inclusiveness. After graduating from Kean University, degreed in communications, McCabe initiated her career working in the engineering and technology space as a communications professional.

Today, McCabe is engaged in efforts in Internet governance, ethics and technology and global standards in trade and policy. McCabe is a member of the OECD Internet Technical Advisory and the Internet Society and works with an array of organizations and bodies to connect technologists, industry leaders and policy makers.

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