IGF 2023 WS #292 Revitalizing Universal Service Funds to Promote Inclusion

Wednesday, 11th October, 2023 (01:30 UTC) - Wednesday, 11th October, 2023 (03:00 UTC)
WS 2 – Room A

Digital Divides & Inclusion
Affordable Access
Gender Digital Divide

Organizer 1: Senka Hadzic, 🔒
Organizer 2: Jane Roberts Coffin , 🔒Connect Humanity

Speaker 1: Nathalia Foditsch, Private Sector, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Speaker 2: Risper Arose, Civil Society, African Group
Speaker 3: Soledad Luca de Tena, Technical Community, African Group
Speaker 4: Teddy Woodhouse, Government, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 5: Konstantinos Komaitis, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 6: Ben Matranga, Private Sector, African Group
Speaker 7: Anoop Nagendra, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)


Jane Roberts Coffin , Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Online Moderator

Dr Carlos Baca-Feldman


Senka Hadzic


Round Table - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

A. How to transform and unlock universal service funds through a multistakeholder model? B. Should universal service funds support community networks and complementary access models? C. How can universal service funds be part of a blended finance and impact investment model for digital inclusion and connectivity?

What will participants gain from attending this session? Participants will gain new knowledge about universal service funds, their current inefficiencies, and innovative ways that governments, private sector, civil society and UN agencies are working on revitalizing and transforming them. Participants will also gain an understanding of real life examples of collaborative multistakeholder models.


Over the years, many universal service funds (USFs) have not delivered on the promise of better connectivity, have not increased accountability of service providers to the public, nor updated their programs to include a new range of connectivity providers and Internet infrastructure that emerged over the last 10-15 years. Through examination of current funds and the landscape of alternative and complementary connectivity solutions, it is possible to create more agile USFs that reach the un- and underserved, are designed considering aspects of inclusion and gender, while promoting competition and resiliency through a more diverse operator/provider base. This session proposes ideas on how to restructure USFs to expand the pool of potential beneficiaries to complementary access solutions, including community and municipal networks. Some countries have already implemented changes and initiated special projects to accommodate USF applications from non-traditional operators, and our speakers will describe these initiatives, focus on how USF funding can be part of a “blended finance” and impact investment approach to connecting more people, and describe ways for stakeholders to work with local government entities to re-frame and improve USFs .

Expected Outcomes

The session will provide recommendations for revitalizing universal service funds. These recommendations will be summarized in a report that will inform a follow-up event, to take place in November in the form of a webinar.

Hybrid Format: 1. To facilitate interaction between onsite and online speakers and attendees, we will leverage a hybrid event platform that provides real-time communication channels. For the onsite attendees, we will project the virtual attendees and their questions/comments onto the screen to ensure that both groups can engage with each other. Additionally, we will use a moderated chat on Zoom for online participants to interact with onsite speakers and vice versa. 2. The session will be designed with both online and onsite participants in mind. The session will be structured with interactive segments to engage all attendees, such as Q&As and debates to cater both online and onsite participants. 3. To increase participation and interaction, we plan to use an online document to allow participants to contribute their thoughts in a shared digital space. We will also utilize social media platforms for pre-session and post-session engagement, such as Twitter for live updates.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

The session highlighted that disbursment levels of universal service funds are still very low. The good news is that the cost of building networks keeps getting lower. In Europe the narrative is mostly about fair share debate between telcos and content providers. Some countries have a universal service obligation rather than a universal service fund.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Need for transparency on how universal service funds are being spent - there are ongoing issues around transparency, impact and sustainability of some of the projects that the USFs undertake. There is a need to create a common language, evidence and bring together best practices.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

This workshop focused on the need to rethink universal service funds and how to use them for expoanding connectivity.

The moderators were Jane Coffin and Carlos Baca (online moderator) and the rapporteur Senka Hadzic - all three onsite. The workshop itself was hybrid.

Onsite participants in this session were: 

  • Konstantinos Komaitis, non-resident fellow at the Lisbon Council & at the DFRL
  • Josephine Miliza, regional policy coordinator for Africa at APC
  • Sol Luca de Tena, connectivity solutions specialist at Giga - UNICEF

Online participants were:

  • Nathalia Foditsch, director of international programs at Connect Humanity
  • Ben Matranga, managing partner at Connectivity Capital
  • Teddy Woodhouse, international policy manager at Ofcom

It was a very diverse panel with speakers representing various stakeholder groups: civil society,  private sector, government, technical community and intergovernmental agencies.

Some important aspects that were raised are challenges regarding transparency and dormancy of universal service funds, need for blended finance, need for regulators to be adaptive.

The first speaker, Nathalia Foditsch, highlighted the very low disbursement rates of existing universal service funds. For example, Brazil’s universal service fund had been dormant for 20 years, and only recently started being used for broadband expansion. However multistakeholder participation is needed when deciding who is eligible to apply for funds.

Konstantinos Komaitis reflected on discussions around infrastructure happening in Europe, which are around the fairshare debate. Telcos are requesting compensation from content providers (large traffic generators) for using their infrastructure. This model may affect the way the Internet is designed to operate. 

Ben Matranga noted that connecting the unconnected is not a technological problem, but rather about coordination and access to capital. Connectivity capital uses blended finance with private sector partners to expand access in remote parts of the world. The cost to build networks nowadays is extraordinarily cheaper than a decade ago.

Teddy Woodhouse from Ofcom explained that the UK regulator Ofcom has a universal service obligation, rather than a universal service fund. There is a nuance between public policy role and regulator’s role to fix USFs. He also pointed out the importance of market structure: competition vs. monopoly.

Josephine Miliza from APC brought up the process that took place in Kenya. Kenya is an example where there has been good collaboration between the regulator and civil society organisations. In the new strategy the regulator aims to establish 150 community networks across the country. Many African countries are looking at the Kenyan model: Malawi and Zimbabwe are seriously considering it. 

Sol Luca de Tena explained how UNICEF Brazil and Giga joined forces to advocate for the reform of the Brazilian USF, which had accumulated over $24 billion over 20 years. Giga also establishes processes to support procurement and management of high volumes of contracts, which are also necessary for efficient use of USFs.

There were several comments and questions raised on site, which were addressed by the panelists.

Importance of collecting evidence and best practices has been a common thread throughout this session, as well as the need for transparency about how universal service funds are being spent. Jurisdictions often copy each other's policies and regulations, which can result in greater inclusion (in case of Malawi and Zimbabwe looking at the Kenyan example of expanding the pool of beneficiaries to include community networks), but also lead to exclusion (in case countries like India and South Korea start following the European example regarding the fair share debate).