Aiming for meaningful connectivity

Danial Norjidi

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact globally, including the Asia-Pacific region, access to the Internet has enabled many to work, learn and socialise while living with restrictions.

However, according to a new study by the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Alliance for Affordable Internet, neither Internet services nor Internet access are universal, and not everyone has benefitted.

A report titled Towards Meaningful Connectivity: Insights from Asia-Pacific case studies stated that across the region, in poorer and less urbanised countries, infrastructure development and Internet use are lagging compared to the situation in richer, urban states. The pattern is also visible at subnational level, including in high-income countries, where city dwellers consistently have better Internet access than those living in less urban settings.

The study carries the objective of better understanding the policy and regulatory environment for information and communications technology (ICT) in Asia-Pacific countries and its implication on ‘Meaningful Connectivity’ to the Internet.

An ESCAP press statement stated that meaningful connectivity – which is defined as access to a fast connection, an appropriate device, enough data and regular Internet use – is not solely tied to a country’s income level or population density.

The report’s key findings indicated there are large variations in the availability and affordability of digital connectivity in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Domestic policies, such as introduction of competition in the mobile phone market and investments in education leading to improved digital literacy and Internet adoption, play important roles in achieving meaningful and affordable Internet connectivity.”

As an example, the statement noted that in Bhutan, fibre-optic networks were deployed along the electricity grid, which helped the country improve from having the lowest penetration rates among low- and lower-middle-income countries in the region in 2009 to reporting the second highest rate in 2019.

It added that Indonesia, through its universal service obligation and related funds, and subsequent increased competition in mobile and fixed wireless markets, now has the most affordable data among developing and emerging economies.

“Today, social inclusion requires reliable and affordable Internet access, and the meaningful connectivity targets can serve as a useful framework for countries to evaluate whether equity is being achieved,” the statement added.

The report also highlighted that meaningful connectivity is achieved when a population can regularly use an appropriate device with a fast connection and enough data to support web browsing, social media applications, video chat and video streaming. While achievement of Meaningful Connectivity targets is best assessed via direct users’ survey, many existing reports and data on telecommunications performance allow for identification of where conditions are ideal.

It also notes that the available data on ESCAP countries and regions shows there are large variations in the availability of connectivity, adequacy of connectivity, and affordability of devices and connectivity. It also shows that favourable conditions for meaningful connectivity are not solely tied to a country’s income levels or population density – some countries significantly outperform their peers.

The report’s findings raise two important messages for future research, the first is that, while telecommunications regulatory reforms have generally been positive in the selected Asia-Pacific countries, their impact on meaningful connectivity has varied. “Further research is needed on other factors that are hindering the telecommunications sector from fully realising its full potential despite well-intentioned policies.”

Secondly, the impact on meaningful connectivity targets is best understood through assessing user-level information, compared to the national/subregional-level data used in the report. Hence, conducting a national survey at the country level would yield more useful insights for policymakers, the report added.

UN Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana said, “Policymakers need to design and implement digital strategies in ensuring safe, inclusive, affordable, and reliable speed Internet access for all.

“Achieving sustainable socio-economic growth is possible with a sustained investment in reducing digital divide across the region,” she added.

Meanwhile, Alliance for Affordable Internet Executive Director Sonia Jorge said, “We were delighted to partner with ESCAP to produce this important study on affordable and meaningful connectivity in the Asia Pacific region.

“It provides a strong baseline to guide the design and implementation of policy actions that are urgently needed to advance meaningful access for all in the region. We look forward to strengthening our partnership to support these efforts.”