More than half of the world’s population is now online, but access alone says nothing about the quality and affordability of that internet experience. The speed of internet access is as important to overcoming digital divides as providing affordable access in the first place.
For entire countries, rural regions or individual house blocks, whether the internet is fast can determine who can stream movies and music, take online courses, manage finances or conduct work online –– and who is excluded from those opportunities.
It’s a sad fact that the slowest mobile broadband internet in the world also happens to be the least affordable. A 2018 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) found that world regions where people on average pay the most for mobile broadband internet relative to their average monthly income also contend with the slowest download speeds (in Mbps).
A4AI call this a “double barrier to meaningful internet access”.
Internet access is considered affordable by the A4AI when 1GB of mobile broadband data is priced at 2% or less of the average monthly income.
Using data from M-Lab, an open source platform to test internet speeds, the A4AI report shows how Africa, for instance, has both the least affordable and slowest internet in the world. The median download speed in Africa was found to be less than a seventh of that in Europe.
Loading a video on YouTube is practically instantaneous in most of Europe — for internet users in some regions of Africa, Latin America or Asia where the internet is slow, the same simple act could be an act of patience, lasting up to several hours.
Both geography and policies can contribute to less affordability and slower internet speeds. For example, smaller countries or regions that are less populated can face higher costs because they have less opportunity to realize economies of scale.
Island nations can face additional challenges because they may need to deploy undersea internet cables for both domestic and international connectivity. In a country comprised of multiple islands, like the Philippines, providing mobile broadband access requires multiple undersea cables and multiple cable landing points, which increases the complexity and cost.
A4AI suggests that to bring down prices for consumers, regulators must incentivize healthy market competition, establish clear and enforceable rules, promote transparency standards, conduct public consultations and develop region-specific strategies. In Colombia, for example, Quality of Service (QoS) regulations to ensure better internet speeds have been conducted in a participatory manner involving the government, operators, civic groups and consumers.
Guaranteeing global minimum standards of internet speed and reliability, as well as affordability, requires long-term planning and engagement among policymakers, regulators and operators to meet the unique challenges of individual countries.