As social distancing measures and lockdowns isolated people, the internet helped keep communities connected and functioning. Households ordered groceries online, adults telecommuted to work and students attended school via distance learning. The internet asserted itself as a necessary utility. However, affordable internet access is far from universal. The United Nations has partnered with the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) to address this by increasing affordable internet access in developing countries as a means of reducing global poverty.
The UN Partners With A4AI
On January 26, 2021, the U.N. Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) announced its partnership with the Alliance for Affordable Internet. The Technology Bank works on a regional and national level to help countries identify and utilize relevant technology and foster partnerships to advance economic development. A4AI advocates and researches policy and regulatory reform with the aim of increasing affordable internet access worldwide. Together, the organizations are using their connections to build an even stronger and more influential network.
The Benefits of Internet Access
The partnership is timely as the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its negative impact, has opened policymakers’ minds to new strategies for reaching the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. The U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs wrote in its 2021 World Social Report that efforts to improve internet access are high-priority because the connectivity will help achieve multiple Sustainable Development Goals at once.
The report notes that increased internet accessibility has started to shift economic dynamics between rural and urban areas. The internet has enabled rural inhabitants to pursue traditionally urban work opportunities through remote work. Using the internet, “E-commerce makes it possible for goods and services to be sourced and provided directly in rural communities.” Farmers and other business owners can receive mobile payments and access mobile financial services. This urbanization defies traditional migration patterns, thus allowing rural communities to improve their quality of life more sustainably.
The report describes affordable internet access as necessary infrastructure, similar to roads and bridges. Without reliable internet, rural populations will be unable to partake in technological and economic innovation. This is why policymakers must tackle regulation and implementation of broadband infrastructure, including cables and satellites.
A4AI 2021 Strategy
A4AI emphasizes networking and knowledge-sharing in its 2021 plan for increasing affordable internet access. The plan features four strategic focuses.
- Advocate for Cost-Effective and Meaningful Connectivity: A4AI advocates for affordable internet access at the regional, national and international levels, partly through knowledge-sharing programs. The programs share resources and tools for the adoption and implementation of affordable internet policy with policymakers and other stakeholders. However, knowledge-sharing efforts go both ways. A4AI seeks to learn from the experiences of others as much as it seeks to recruit new partners to its cause.
- Boost Country and Regional Engagements: A4AI uses its partnerships to promote policy and regulatory reform on a regional level. Its flexible coalition model emphasizes “bottom-up policy change” in currently engaged countries. A4AI will tackle policy issues such as taxation, rural broadband and infrastructure sharing. A4AI seeks to broadcast past regional successes as an advocacy strategy. With the help of partners such as Smart Africa, A4AI will promote similar policy reforms elsewhere in respective regions. Partner organizations, like the Women’s Rights Online network, help A4AI promote a gender-inclusive policy framework. Expert and stakeholder input on policy across sectors is an overall priority.
- Develop and Democratize Knowledge: A4AI strives to produce evidence-based research focusing on “affordable access, meaningful access and sustainable access.” Research efforts include monitoring internet access and innovations in affordable internet policy worldwide. Sustainable access is a new focus for A4AI. It seeks to examine affordable internet access in the context of climate change and sustainability.
- Strengthen A4AI Engagements and Strategic Collaborations: A4AI boasts more than 100 members with whom it seeks to deepen its partnerships through greater technical assistance and other complementary opportunities. This includes a study in conjunction with the Internet Society Foundation on “the economic impact of the digital gender divide on digital economies.”
The pandemic reinforced the importance of universal internet accessibility in the 21st century. As a result, A4AI and its partners increased advocacy efforts on the benefits of internet access to policymakers worldwide. In order to close the digital and economic divides between developed and developing economies and between rural and urban areas, the Alliance for Affordable Internet aims to achieve universal internet access.
– Mckenzie Howell