Internet Should Be A Public Utility Service

The Internet needs a much bigger investment than we have given it so far.

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Server racks with telecommunication equipment in server room

In the year 1998, I joined the University of Nairobi as a freshman. In our computer labs, we had Internet access. At the time, no other university in Kenya provided Internet access to students. The Internet first became available in Kenya during 1993. Full Internet access was established in 1995. Interestingly, African Regional Centre for Computing (ARCC) an NGO, led the initiative to bring the Internet into Kenya. The most notable people involved in this project were scholar Dr. Shem Ochuodho and an American scientist, Randy Bush. It is interesting that the Internet was brought to Kenya not by today’s thriving commercial telecommunication players nor by the government. The two, however, now dominate and dictate how the masses can access the Internet through commercial Internet service provision and respective regulation.

Indeed, the people who started the Internet never saw this dominance by commercial players coming. These businesses have built their business models around the Internet, and today determine and control how users benefit, and how much it costs consumers to get the benefits of the Internet. These players have definitely played a significant role in extending the use of the Internet but they have also limited the universal access of the Internet in many ways. Those born in 1998 are now 22 years old. I have a few on my team. They do not know much about the history of the Internet in Africa as it is not a widely discussed topic.

Our African Internet pioneers were involved in big fights with governments to land the first Internet data packets on this continent. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were non-existent. When this happened many were happy, new information and communication technology policies cum laws were enacted and licensing regimes were established. We have been playing in this policy environment and legal framework. The Telcos and ISPS have managed to create an infrastructure that has seen the spread of the Internet to a great extent. What appears to me and you and wide mobile Internet penetration in Africa is a mere 24 per cent per the GSMA Mobile Internet Connectivity 2019 Sub-Saharan Africa Factsheet. Internet World Stats reports a 39.3 per cent penetration rate though for Africa and 87.2 per cent for Kenya.

It is easy to get fooled by these percentages but the fact is that the Internet is not affordable. And this is because Internet provision is in the hands of commercial entities who see it mainly as a commercial venture. Mobile data will never deliver universal affordable Internet access. This is a fact that governments need to wake up to. This is a hard fact for the African continent where Internet access is predominantly via mobile data. Users should not be visiting the Internet, they should stay online to truly derive the benefits of what the Internet is today.

This is untenable with current mobile data tariffs. Most of African homes and businesses do not have access to fixed broadband through fiber or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Looking at the income patterns of individuals and small businesses, most must go to work every day to get income to cover daily amenities and this includes money to buy Internet bundles. This explains why in Kenya for example you can find even hourly Internet bundles or subscription tariffs. We call it the kadogo economy.

When countries started taking measures to control the spread of COVID-19 early this month, schools were closed. This was closely followed by a recommendation for people to stay home. It became apparent that most African countries were totally unprepared for disruption in face-to-face school education. Parents too are unprepared for working from home whether in employment or business. The main reason for this is that we have not done enough investment to ensure the Internet is universally accessible and affordable. There are few homes today that do not have constant access to drinking water and this should be the case for Internet access going into the future. The current Internet access dynamics make it similar to families depending exclusively on bottled water for their household needs instead of clean tap water.

The Internet should be a public utility service. The governments must begin looking to it as such. They must treat access to the Internet as they do to water, electricity, roads, and sewerage. COVID-19 has caught us all unprepared and we do not know for how long, for example, the education calendars will be disrupted. What we know is that if each family regardless of economic status had the ability to stay online for all productive work needed by each family member daily, it is possible to continue school programs at this point and even have telemedicine. The internet infrastructure would support many areas of our lives. Being on the Internet is no longer a luxury or a preserve for well-to-do people, it is a great necessity. If mobile data continues to be the main way to get connected, the government must step in and ensure that it is universally accessible and affordable.

Since 2018, our non-profit organization AfChix had been implementing community wireless network projects in Kenya, Morocco, Senegal and Namibia. This project is funded under the USAID WomenConnect Challenge. The project named “gender-sensitive approach to connect the unconnected using Community Network Models” involves working with unconnected communities to build their capacities to establish and maintain community-based and owned telecommunications infrastructure.

Our projects in the four countries have involved putting grassroots women at the forefront of steering a technical project at the community level as they have done for other community initiatives such as access to water and electricity. It has been a great learning experience for our teams. Everyone wants an affordable and accessible Internet in their homes. Women in the grassroots want to take up courses without leaving their homes, keep in touch with their families via video calls, cook by following a recipe online, tell a story online, market a local product, search about anything they like or pursue other passions through the information available online. These women represent their family members who too want to derive the same benefits from the Internet. The biggest barrier is “mobile data bundles are too expensive.”

COVID-19 will change the world forever. One inevitable change will be moving to a virtual world. Engaging online will be a big new norm. Education and health care will in the future have a big online component. The time is now for governments to declare the Internet a public utility service and begin to invest in its universal and affordable access. For governments to achieve this, they must involve the community and define new regulatory frameworks.

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