Policy and technology approaches for expanding broadband to rural and remote areas

20 Dec 2017 15:00h - 16:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

The 2-part session focused on exploring new policies and technology approaches to provide universal and meaningful access to underserved areas.

Moderating the session, Ms Lorrayne Porciuncula, Analyst on Broadband Policy – The Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD), referred to the United Nations agenda for sustainable development, specifically acknowledging information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet as tools for development and the foundation of the digital economy. She reminded participants that over half of the world’s population – 53% – was still offline at the end of 2016. 

In the first part, and referring to the 2017 IGF opening ceremony, Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Chief of Strategic Planning – International Telecommunication Union (ITU), highlighted the need to have an inclusive digital future where everyone – male, female, young, old, rural or urban – is involved. She mentioned that the ITU reported that 3 out of 5, and 1 out of 7 people in developed and developing economies respectively, have access to the Internet.

Talking about why people are not online, Ms Helani Galpaya, CEO – LIRNEasia, shared statistics from a recent survey by LIRNEasia, which showed that Africa was performing poorly, followed by Asia and Latin America making significant progress. There were variances between rural and urban users with one of the reasons being acces to devices such as smartphones. Other reasons were affordability, awareness, skills, permission, etc. There was a small difference in speed in rural and urban areas.

In the second part, Mr Bengy Mölleryd, Senior Analyst – Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS), asked if policies could foster, create and drive demand. He mentioned that there has to be genuine demand from end users, local communities and businesses. Mölleryd highlighted that municipalities, regions and policymakers need to be involved in setting broadband targets and engaging people. Giving the example of Sweden, he informed participants that in the last 20 – 25 years, there have been 180 municipal networks. Mölleryd encouraged competition and called for policies not to undermine private investments.

Mr Sebastián Bellagamba, Regional Bureau Director for Latin Ameica and the Caribbean – Internet Society, was optimistic that the digital gap between online-offline and rural-urban is closing, reminding participants that a few years ago, 10% of the world’s population was connected. He called for top – bottom and bottom – top approaches while encouraging the deployment of community networks, which are helping to put the two sides of the digital divide together. He encouraged support for community networks by licensing spectrum (wireless) and using universal services.

Mr Michael Ginguld, CEO of AirJaldi Networks, mentioned that there is a drive for additional connectivity in rural areas by the government in India. He disagreed with the comment that even if you connect rural areas, people will not use the service, sighting that people will use the Internet if the price is right. Speaking about a range called TV white-spaces, Ginguld mentioned that it could offer some interesting possibilities for rural areas, but that in most developing countries though, the aspect is still held tightly and not licensed. Other technologies were E-band and fibre optics. He added that if people saw concrete ways in which they could use the Internet to their benefit, such as environmental monitoring, precision agriculture and water usage, they would connect.

Ms Amrita Choudhury, Director of CCAOI, highlighted policy initiatives in India such as getting WiFi in the villages, and initiatives where virtual networks and mobile operators can provide connectivity. She mentioned that rural markets are weak, but that in urban areas people are using the Internet, so there is a need to look at policy perspectives to bridge the gap. She called for policies to reflect the use of the Internet for rural areas, the use of local content to encourage people to go online and having public-private partnerships.

Mr Robert Pepper, Head of the Global Connectivity and Technology Policy – Facebook, identified one of the issues as not just being the unconnected, but also the under-connected. He agreed with Ginguld’s spectrum idea and highlighted Facebook’s work with Internet service providers. Pepper referred to Airtel in Uganda, where 85% of the people have access to 2G-voice connections, but that in rural areas, there is no way to scale broadband off the same towers. He also talked about a Facebook project to create lightweight, solar powered drones to provide access.

By Sarah Kiden