Unpacking approaches for achieving digital inclusion for all

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recent report shows that great strides are being made in expanding access to internet through increased availability of broadband networks. However, there is a substantial divide of unconnected and under connectedness – that still need to be addressed within communities in both developed and developing markets.  A lot has been written to demonstrate how cost is remain one of major barriers to internet adoption.

Communities all over the world have a segment of their population that is marginalized because of economic headwinds that make it difficult for them to be full participant and contributor in social and economic development.

Access to internet creates an enabling environment for everyone to benefit from the opportunities of an increasingly digital economy that we live in today. It also fosters digital literacy and it is an empowerment multiplier to achieving broader goals not only in educational and health outcomes but also employability, entrepreneurship including small business support and a path to middle class. Therefore, closing the digital divide is both an economic and moral imperative that need persistent discussion and sharing of various approached with stronger potential for results.

Giving everyone access to the internet, otherwise known as digital inclusion can be achieved in the following ways;

First approach is by improving and cultivating a competitive environment in the market place. The commission needs to perform a diagnostic of existing and potential barriers for any new entrant into mobile service providers space.

This includes provisioning of data services, wireless and fiber platforms.  This diagnosis must take to account impediments to two kinds of entrants; 1) Those which might want to install their own infrastructure and 2) Those considering an option of leasing unused capacity from the incumbent operators also known as Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). 

To facilitate MVNO participation, the regulatory framework may mandate all the incumbent mobile operators to report how much of their installed capacity goes unused every month as well as addressing existing market failure in business transactions by acting as an enabler of the negotiations to protect the MVNO from being unfairly priced out and excluded.

The idea is that when barriers to entry are lowered, new entrants will want to come in with innovative business models that target the excluded and economically marginalized market.  This has been done elsewhere like in the United States where the incumbents ignored and priced out a segment of the market but MVNO like CricketWireless, BootsMobile and others joined in with innovative business models that suites and cater for the neglected low-income including those subscribers with-not so good credit history.  

These MVNO begun taking up the market share of the very incumbent from whom they were leasing the infrastructure.  The incumbents’ profitability was being affected and as a matter of survival the competitive environment resulted into low prices that benefited everyone.  This is a sustainable way to regulate the market and achieve the desired outcome of digital inclusion instead of arbitrarily price fixing, which will distort the market and taking away the natural creativity incentive of a business enterprise.

The second approach is by intentionally creating a dedicated Digital Inclusive Fund.  The regulatory framework can facilitate putting into the fund through part of the mobile operator spectrum auctioning revenue or as a percentage of valuation of mergers & acquisition deals.  Sustainment of the fund may come from shared value contribution of private sector participants including mobile operators and other companies operating in localities as well as philanthropists. 

A separate and independent organization should be given the mandate to work with local governments, Community Based Organizations (CBOs) through stakeholder engagements and local trusted brokers to implement Digital Inclusive Initiatives and programs using this fund.

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