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Universal access and meaningful connectivity

Ensuring that all people everywhere have meaningful and sustainable access to the Internet is a priority, as the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated. The concept of universal access has evolved over time, from referring to the availability of a payphone within walking distance in the 1990s, to the widespread availability of either fixed or wireless broadband Internet connectivity from the mid-2000s. However, evidence increasingly indicates that access to connectivity is not sufficient on its own. People and institutions from all sectors and stakeholder groups should reflect on connectivity in a holistic way that takes into account how people are able to make use of connectivity once they do have access. This requires considering links between digital equity and social and economic inequalities, and adopting an user-centric approach that combines access (in terms of availability of affordable connectivity and devices), adoption and ability to use (digital skills and readiness), uses driven by content and applications (e.g. education, economic development, health, agriculture) and equity/diversity (e.g. gender, race, language, disability, geographic location, ownership and control). 

There is a need for creative and accountable approaches to policy, regulation, enabling financing solutions, infrastructures/content platforms, partnerships and business models that can help achieve meaningful access. Examples include public and private partnerships; local access provision, through, for instance, community networks; use of universal service/access funds in financing access; infrastructure sharing; decentralised approaches to infrastructure development; and use of emerging technologies and sustainable energy solutions. Other factors that can contribute to advancing ubiquitous and affordable Internet access range from developing the capacity of regulators and service and content providers, to incentivising the development and use of local language content and locally relevant content. 

Last, but not least, we should also examine why many of the policy solutions which are already known and proven to be effective are not being widely implemented. 

Policy questions     

  1. Defining universal and meaningful access: What are the key elements that constitute universal and meaningful Internet access? How can it be measured? How is the concept evolving in time and what does this evolution mean for policy?
  2. Barriers to universal and meaningful access: What are the main challenges that people face in obtaining and making full use of Internet access? To what extent are these the result of social, economic and cultural factors, and to what extent do they result from aspects of the digital environment? How can we use the responses to these questions to better understand the intersection between digital policies and other policy areas? Can this understanding help us to develop and implement more realistic Internet-related policy goals?
  3. Leveraging infrastructure and technology innovation and development: How can the significant expansion of mobile infrastructure around the world, as well as other existing and emerging technologies such as satellite, fibre, and wireless networks, be used to expand affordable access?
  4. Business models and investment: The IGF has frequently addressed the principles, approaches, business models, incentives and coordinated actions by various stakeholders (governments, local authorities, regulators, fixed and mobile broadband Internet service providers, telecom companies, local communities, etc.) to spur investments in connectivity solutions and enable more affordable Internet access in developing countries. What can the IGF do to capture and communicate the emerging consensus resulting from these discussions? What are the barriers to this emerging consensus being implemented and how can they be overcome? 
  5. Practical locally-driven policy solutions: What lessons can be drawn (and how) from successful policy solutions to universal access and meaningful connectivity around the world, while taking into account local specificities and needs? In particular, what are the relevant practices implemented by local actors (local government, civil society, local providers and entrepreneurs) to advance universal and meaningful access?
  6. Challenges and solutions in regulating spectrum: What are the relevant regulatory issues that require attention when it comes to enabling broader access to spectrum in order to stimulate dissemination of affordable and quality access at the community level?

Related issues

  • Universal access, meaningful connectivity, infrastructures, community-based networks, connect the unconnected, affordable and easy access, connectivity in rural areas and for marginalised communities and individuals, alternative business models, capacity development, democratising Internet access, closing the gender gap, content diversity, local language content, locally relevant content, Internet for all, bridge digital divide, enabling policy environments, Internet accessibility, investment in infrastructure, deployment of infrastructure, next generation of communication standards, low-orbit communication satellites, spectrum.

Contact Information

United Nations
Secretariat of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

Villa Le Bocage
Palais des Nations,
CH-1211 Geneva 10

igf [at] un [dot] org
+41 (0) 229 173 411