"Our Digital Future'' - Who is responsible for providing universal and affordable access to the Internet in LDCs? (Town Hall debate)

Monday, 6th December, 2021 (13:00 UTC) - Monday, 6th December, 2021 (14:30 UTC)
Ballroom A

Session overview

Marking the third session in the Our Digital Future capacity building series, this IGF 2021 Town Hall debate will reflect on topics covered in the earlier workshops. In line with a key pillar of the overall series theme, the town hall will focus on developing countries and their digital transformation needs, outlined in SDG9. Based on the target in SDG9.c, the debate question calls into focus the goal for all stakeholders to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

Session objective

Provide developing country representatives and all engaged stakeholders with a nuanced outline of the diverse roles each stakeholder group (governments, private sector, civil society, technical communities) must play to deliver affordable, universal Internet access urgently. In addition, the session will also respond to the question: Have we missed the deadline set for this goal in SDG9.C? The 2020 deadline, which was set in SDG9.C, has now passed. The session will further spotlight the digital divide gaps which remain since the 2020 deadline, and must be addressed imminently.

Session plan

The four pre-appointed speakers would provide distinctive arguments to demonstrate the urgency of each stakeholder’s role in providing universal access in LDCs/developing countries. Four appointed speakers to cover communities mentioned in Connecting Humanity (Section 5: Next Steps - What should be done next?):

(1) urgency of the private sector’s role in particular ICT/broadband market actors;

(2) urgency need for “whole of government” roadmaps;

(3) urgency of the global finance communities’ role; and

(4) urgency of regulatory and policy makers’ role.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)
In areas where people have not been able to get affordable access from traditional telecommunication ‎networks, it is important for spectrum authorities to look for new approaches
Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

Our Digital Future town hall debate

Who is responsible for providing universal and affordable access to the Internet in LDCs?

6th December, 2021, 14:00-15:30 CET

- Report -

This session looked at universal and affordable access in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, noting the specific target in SDG 9 “provide universal and affordable access in least developed countries by 2020”. With the passing of that deadline, the issue has only become more urgent, and the discussion sought to understand the diverse roles that governments, regulators, the private sector and other stakeholders need to play to deliver affordable, universal Internet access in least developing countries. The key take-aways are set out below.

  • Meaningful connectivity is about more than access – it is also about affordability, measuring the right things, and being people-centered, including ensuring that people have sufficient digital skills 

In thinking about connectivity, it is important to start with people, not access. This means improving measurement approaches to understand:

  • the breadth of Internet use (how often and in what ways it is used, and disaggregated by demographics)
  • how affordable Internet access is for all parts of society (e.g., taking into account local purchasing power, and using benchmarks like A4AI’s 1GB data for less than 2% of monthly income which is used by the ITU
  • the positive impacts of being connected.

It also means thinking about digital skills, digital literacy and digital entrepreneurship in underserved communities. One approach could be for education ministries to review and keep up-to-date digital skills education in school and college curricula.

  • To fill the remaining connectivity gaps, traditional public-private partnerships need to be rethought and diversified so that they can be multistakeholder and multi-faceted

It is necessary to broaden and reinvent traditional public-private partnerships to look at the roles that can be played by other stakeholders. Partnerships between private sector players will continue to be important (e.g., the 2Africa sub-sea cable that will expand fibre-optic backhaul connectivity to Africa). However, it is also important to look to examples of non-profits and the technical community establishing community networks and local Internet Exchange Points (given that a lot of the cost of traffic in developing countries stems from the distance to IXPs). Often these projects are funded by small seed grants and use innovative technologies that enable cheaper connectivity costs. There needs to be a re-invention of micro-finance where local actors can be part of the equation for new financing models.

In Small Island Developing States (SIDS), traditional banking and finance bodies are generally reluctant to provide financing capacity to address access and inclusion issues. While in developed countries, this gap can be filled by venture capital or angel investors, this type of funding approach is extremely immature and lean in SIDS and other developing countries.

  • Think local by involving local governments and people in connectivity projects and understanding local needs and circumstances

While resources will often come from central governments, foreign aid agencies or development banks, successful implementation needs to be done in collaboration with, or led by, local government and local people. Local involvement and ownership mean that local circumstances and values can be taken into account and enables the transfer of knowledge and skills to the people who will still be there once a project is implemented, making projects more sustainable.

Locally-relevant content is also important to enable people to realise the benefits of digital connectivity. For example, the agriculture sector provides the majority of jobs in Africa and relevant content for farmers could be local weather or information in local languages about crop disease in the area.

  • Holistic and whole-of-government approaches are important to ensure connectivity needs are taken into account when allocating scarce resources

Connectivity enables economic development and access to the Internet should therefore be an important consideration for ministries overseeing various different sectors and should encourage government ministries to work together on digital transformation projects and policies. However, spending by development banks, aid agencies and governments in developing countries, particularly in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) region often prioritizes other societal issues and basic infrastructure needs over connectivity, sometimes with the mistaken assumption that connectivity is already in place.

Within the ACP, and especially in SIDS, there is a heavy reliance on financing from international developmental agencies such as the World Bank, UNDP and regional development Banks, but even then, access and inclusion issues compete not only with other development priorities but also with other digital economy issues.

One solution could be to piggyback on existing projects, so that access and inclusion needs are addressed as part of other projects, such as initiatives to build out aspects of the digital economy or roll out public or and private sector digital services. It could also be interesting to look to UN agencies and other funding bodies that are not traditionally focused on connectivity.

  • Decision-makers should be open to collaborative regulation and listen to all stakeholders

A good practice for governments is participatory regulation, which ensures that decision-makers listen to and involve stakeholders. Decision-makers would also benefit from neutral data, with a problem sometimes being that regulators are intimidated by large operators and rely on data driven by those same operators.

  • Access to spectrum and innovative spectrum management approaches are a vital ingredient for many affordable solutions

In areas where people have not been able to get affordable access from traditional telecommunication networks, it is important for spectrum authorities to look for new approaches. Examples were given from Spain (guifi.net using unlicensed spectrum), Mexico (social purpose spectrum licenses) and Brazil (liberalization of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed spectrum) where new approaches to spectrum management had enabled community networks and other local approaches.

  • Universal Service Funds need to be flexible and open to new technologies and approaches

Universal Service Funds should be flexible and agile enough that they can be adapted to the needs, circumstances and available technology approaches of different areas – this could include opening them up so that they can be used to finance local IXPs and community networks.

Speakers and moderators

Co-moderators: Mr. Ben Wallis, Microsoft and Ms. Anriette Esterhuysen, IGF MAG Chair

Opening remarks: Mr. John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs, Microsoft


  1. Ms. Jane Coffin, IGF 2021 Policy Network on Meaningful Access multistakeholder working group
  2. Mr. Robert Pepper, Head of Global Connectivity Policy and Planning at Meta
  3. Mr. Tracy Hackshaw, Manager of .POST Projects at Universal Postal Union; and Co-Chair of Dynamic Coalition of Small Island Developing States in the Internet Economy (DC-SIDS)
  4. Mr. Wisdom Donkor, Head of Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation