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Connecting the world with mobile internet.

Not everyone is connected to the internet — 4 billion people live without access — and they’re missing out on memes, cat gifs, and snapchat filters. More importantly though, they’re being denied access to information they could use to make their lives easier and better. In an age where the UN considers access to the internet a basic human right, and denial of access a human rights violation, it’s hard to imagine that so many people aren’t able to experience the internet for themselves.

But, as Bob Dylan sang, The Times They are A-Changin’ and by 2020, 1 billion of those people will come online, with the vast majority connecting via mobiles, not desktop. Africa in particular is playing catch up to the leaders of internet connectivity, with just 25% of the region’s population accessing the internet via mobile. This presents both challenges and opportunities to those who see mobile networks as a key element in the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the transformation of people’s lives.

The GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index measures the performance of 150 countries against four key enablers of mobile internet adoption–infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness and content.

The world-changing impact of the internet is undeniable: revolutions have been ignited and fuelled by social media; millions of jobs have been created on the back of it; and human rights abuses have been exposed. A number of studies emphasise the economic benefits of connectivity, but social development materialises in many aspects as it becomes easier for people to access educational services, healthcare advice, and job opportunities. Armed with more information, people should be left feeling empowered and prepared for the future.

To understand how we can extend the internet to the missing 4 billion, we need to identify the barriers to access and how to overcome them. The GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index identifies infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness, and content as the four cornerstones of mobile internet adoption, so let’s take a close look at each one and see what can be done.

The four gateways to mobile internet access.

Strong and stable networks.

Without network coverage, people can’t get online. I get heart palpitations when I’m on a train and the 3G signal falters to E, but at least I know it will return in a few moments. To enjoy the full experience of the internet, rickrolls and all, people need high-quality, reliable connections. However, in Africa, 50% of mobile internet users can’t connect to 3G networks. Furthermore, “while 95% of the world has access to an internet signal, far too often, users have access to only one, low quality provider, usually the most expensive option in their country.” (Mozilla, 2017)

Services we take for granted in Europe and the USA, like Netflix and Spotify are unimaginable in some rural areas of Africa. Sure, some might argue that the ability to watch Game of Thrones isn’t a basic human right (I would disagree), but apps that help you decide what crops to grow this year and predict droughts provide life changing information everyone should have access to. Building up an infrastructure that delivers high-quality mobile internet access to even the most remote of locations is necessary if we want everyone to join the party.

Affordable options.

According to GSMA’s research, mobile services remain unaffordable in Africa, with the cost of smartphones also a factor in preventing access to the internet. Mozilla’s Internet Health Report highlights that 39.5% of the world’s population can’t afford internet on their phone or mobile device at all. For those who can afford access, it’s not uncommon for people to own multiple sim cards so they can take advantage of promotions and switch between different networks to get the best deals.

To address the issue of affordability, some internet providers have established zero rating services, whereby users are allowed to access certain websites and applications without charge. Facebook’s Free Basics is perhaps the best known example of a zero rating service but there are unresolved issues around net neutrality. In July 2017, Mozilla published research it had commissioned that took a look at the impact of zero rating service on people’s use of the internet. They found it wasn’t acting as an on-ramp to the internet as originally envisioned, rather it was being used as a money-saving technique by people who already had full access. Therefore, the zero rating service isn’t helping people who aren’t yet online.

Free public wi-fi networks, such as those provided on buses or in shopping areas, are one way in which low-income users can get online, and public access closes the digital divide between those who can afford the internet and those who can’t (A4AI, 2017). But ultimately these people should have the opportunities to affordably access the internet wherever and whenever they want. Improving infrastructure so consumers can have more options will help address the affordability issue, especially for those users whose options are restricted to one provider.

The two e’s: Education and Equality.

To get online, a person needs a few basic skills. These include reading, writing, and knowing how to use a smartphone or other digital device. I don’t really remember learning how to use a smartphone, but when I taught my Mum how to use her first iPhone, I came to appreciate that a touchscreen interface can be an alien concept to someone that’s been using a Nokia 6230 for the past 10 years. (I also came to appreciate that I’m an impatient teacher, sorry Mum).

Education in the form of basic literacy and digital skills is essential for those 4 billion people who aren’t yet online. UNESCO reported in 2016 that 757 million adults aged 15 and older are illiterate — that’s around 10% of the global population. Of these illiterate people, two-thirds of them are women, highlighting the fact that gender inequality is holding women back. Inequality that presents itself in the form of social stigmas, domestic abuse, and household obligations is also preventing women’s access to the internet. GMSA described the gender gap in internet usage as significant, and to overcome it we must promote the collection and use of gender-disaggregated data to introduce policies and initiatives that reduce inequality.

Mozilla’s latest research found that a lack of digital skills limits access to the internet for both connected and unconnected people alike. Improving people’s digital skills will not only help get more people online, but teach them to critically look at what they are seeing. For example, some people can’t distinguish between promoted content and real news, while some Facebook users don’t realise they are using the internet. Of the people using zero rated services, some are unaware there’s more to the internet than what they’ve been given access to. Therefore, if people can learn to recognise and overcome these artificial boundaries, they’ll have access to more knowledge (and cat memes) than they ever could have imagined.

Content for the people, by the people.

Content that’s locally relevant — which is defined as being created and hosted locally, or containing information that’s directly relevant to the local population — is the fourth cornerstone of mobile internet adoption. Think of all the times you’ve opened an app to check the weather or the train times: that’s locally relevant content which helps you decide if you need to pack an umbrella today (the answer is always yes if you live in the UK). Once people find information they can use, they’ll keep coming back to it, but it has to exist in the first place.

One of the problems with the internet as it currently exists is that local dialects are underrepresented: according to Mozilla’s latest Internet Health Report, 52% of all websites are in English, even though only 25% of the global population understands it. As useful as Google Translate is, it doesn’t always capture the nuances of how humans speak and some translations are outright nonsense. To be truly locally relevant, content needs to be written in the language the users speak themselves.

“Tuna hills and sparse archades.” The habitat of a Uzbekistan sheep species— according to a Google translation of the 2009 Uzbekistan Red Data Book.

A lack of locally relevant content is one of the criticisms of zero rating services. The websites and services people have access to shouldn’t be dictated by those who finance zero rating services, instead equal rating services that allow users to access any content they choose, could help people access the services that are most relevant to them. Equal rating is based on the principles of free and open access — principles Vizzuality strongly believes in — and it encourages the creation of locally relevant content by opening up the internet and making it an equal playing field.

When it comes to creating content specifically for audiences living in African countries, the infrastructure, affordability, and literacy issues must all be taken into account. Websites and applications have to function well on patchy, slow internet connections, and they mustn’t gobble up data. Design techniques such as progressive disclosure can be used to develop websites that gradually introduce new topics and help novice users learn and develop their digital skills. The time is ripe for creating content that people will love to use.

The gates are opening, now let’s open them faster.

Rather than seeing mobile networks as an opportunity to deliver the SDGs, we should be regarding the SDGs as a gateway to better, more inclusive mobile internet access. Ending poverty and inequality, and improving education and infrastructure will make it easier to get four billion more people online in a meaningful way. In turn, the connections between 7 billion people will catalyse the achievement of the SDGs. We have nothing to lose.

To make it happen, partnerships between all the players who make the internet what it is are essential. From the service providers, to the content producers, to the readers and the watchers, we’re all part of a global online community that has the power to shape the internet — and we should be shaping it into something that’s inclusive and open. Let’s work together to make it happen.

via giphy

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