Economies, especially, those of the middle and low-income countries, have lost about $1 trillion due to their inability to bridge persistent digital gender gaps.
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), which referenced this in its “Affordability Report 2021: A New Strategy for Universal Access,” noted that digital exclusion is no longer just about being beyond the reach of the infrastructure that makes Internet access possible.
A4AI, which is run by the World Wide Web Foundation, brings together businesses, governments and civil society actors from across the globe to deliver the policies needed to reduce the cost of connecting and make universal, affordable Internet access a reality for all.
A4AI said affordability, social norms, personal security, and privacy are all part of the system that keeps billions offline. It stressed that any comprehensive policy for universal access must, therefore, keep these topics in mind.
Already, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has revealed that 2.9 billion people are still offline, having no access to the Internet. It stressed that half of them are women. It pointed out that in some parts of the world, the digital gender divide has been shrinking, but data showed it is growing in Africa.
For instance, Equal Access International (EAI) in Northern Nigeria showed that around 60 per cent of the female population is not able to access the Internet, and research showed that deeply entrenched social, gender, and cultural norms present a significant barrier to women and girls’ access to and use of technology and the Internet.
EAI, referencing a recent study conducted by the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), informed that 55 per cent of men in Northern Nigeria do not want their wives to use the Internet, and 61 per cent of fathers discourage their daughters’ use. While male figures are often the ones controlling access at a household level, data indicates that both sexes have internalised these norms and restrictive behaviors.
As such, the A4AI said the pandemic has shown that access to technology is not a luxury anymore; it is a necessity, especially for girls. It observed that there is a gender digital divide globally: girls are disadvantaged when it comes to digital adoption, have lower levels of access to and use of digital technology than boys, and often they are not benefitting from digital technology as boys are.
According to the body, Universal Service & Access Funds (USAFs) can help close this gap, in Nigeria, the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF).
The Executive Director, A4AI, Sonia Jorge, noted that universal access is not a fantasy, “but it is also not our guaranteed future. Serious policy and regulatory action is required.”
The report observed that ICTs have had a transformational impact on the world. It stressed that this effect has been no more present than over the past two years as much of the economy, government, education, and health have moved online in response to the global pandemic.
However, it stressed that despite this impact, vast inequalities exist, as women, especially rural women, remain excluded from the ‘digital revolution.’
Referencing the Affordability Drivers Index (ADI), A4AI indicated that, overall, conditions continue to improve towards greater affordability. “However, progress remains slow – too slow. Governments have not taken the required actions to accelerate Internet access worldwide in a way that would help attain the Sustainable Development Goals, grow the economy, and help people realise their potential.”
Closing this ever-increasing digital gender gap, A4AI noted that USAFs could act as catalysts for action to drive down the price of Internet access, expand coverage to the millions that remain unconnected, and build the inclusive foundation for a robust digital economy.
The WWWF body said that USAFs have historically fit to a contained brief of intervening only where there are market failures. “But they hold a unique position within the telecommunications sector that makes them well positioned to advance progress towards universal Internet access. Our report builds from new innovations in industrial policy that focus on re-organising political and economic institutions to work in harmony towards a common goal.
“This theory spans issues of organisational competence and structure, financing and funding models, market regulation, and modes of participation and partnership across public, private, and community sectors.”
A4AI wants governments to modernise the USAF mandate to build inclusive, strong digital economies. It stressed that USAFs offer the pre-existing infrastructure to pursue a mission for universal Internet access; however, governments must enable these institutions to evolve with the growing impact of the ICT sector with timely policies, adequate resources, and a mandate to build a coalition of actors across the sector.
The body pointed out that there is still time to act and meet the international goals set for universal, affordable access to the Internet by 2030. It stressed that these goals will not be met without radical thinking and new approaches that move legacy institutions from their ways of working at inception to new strategies for a new era of digital technologies.
The telecoms body said as governments consider building the foundation to their digital economy, they must invest through USAFs to drive inclusive innovation in the sector.
“USAFs and public access projects, as a policy trend, have proven themselves over the past six years to be the most effective policy tool towards greater affordability. Given the importance of this affordable and universal access as a strong foundation for an inclusive and scalable digital economy, in turn, USAFs become critical institutions for building that economy,” it stated.
Going forward, A4AI recommended Mariana Mazzucato’s Mission Economy, which recommended seven pillars to faster digital connection, including; pursuing public value creation through universal access; shaping broadband markets towards affordability; building competence and confidence in public sector; financing bold investments for connectivity; distributing affordable data to the greatest number; supporting new partnerships for universal access and encouraging broad participation in USAF governance and strategy .