Internet access is growing rapidly, yet large groups of people remain unconnected to the Internet. As of 2015, about 43% of people had access to the Internet (in developing countries only 34%). Access to ICTs is part of the Sustainable Development Agenda, which commits to ‘significantly increase access to ICTs and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’ (Goal 9.c).
Internet interconnection and Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
The Internet consists of thousands of networks. In order to exchange data between users, these networks need to connect with one another. Internet access therefore depends on reliable, efficient and cost-effective interconnections between networks. The interconnections are achieved by voluntary and independently negotiated agreements between network operators.
To connect to Internet networks, users and companies pay Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for Internet access and services. Typically ISPs have to cover the following expenses from the fees collected:
- Cost of telecommunication expenses and Internet bandwidth to the next major Internet hub.
- Cost of IP addresses obtained from regional Internet registries (RIRs) or local Internet registries (LIRs). An IP address is needed by a device to access the Internet.
- Cost of equipment, software, and maintenance of their installations.
Increasingly, the Internet access business is complicated by regulatory requirements of governments such as data-retention. More regulation requires more expenses which could be either passed to Internet users through subscription or buffered by reduced profit for the ISPs.
Internet exchange points (IXPs)
One way in which access can be improved is the introduction of Internet exchange points (IXPs). IXPs are usually established to keep Internet traffic within smaller communities (e.g. city, region, country), avoiding unnecessary routing over remote geographical locations. As IXPs keep local Internet traffic within the country, the usage and costs of international bandwidth can be reduced, which makes access more affordable. Still, many developing countries do not have IXPs, which means that a considerable part of Internet traffic is routed through another country. Various initiatives seek to establish IXPs in developing countries.
Universal access is a frequently mentioned concept in relation to the development debate. Although it is agreed to be the cornerstone of any digital development policy, differing perceptions and conceptions of the nature and scope of policies aiming at universal access remain. The question of universal access at the global level remains largely an open issue, and depends mainly on the readiness of developed countries to invest in the realisation of this goal, as well as on policy environment in developing countries. Still, the importance of universal access is agreed on in many international documents, such as the WSIS+10 Outcome Document.
Recently, many initiatives have formed, often through public-private partnerships, to increase Internet access. These initiatives either focus on the traditional means of constructing cables or refer to less traditional methods, such as building Internet-disseminating satellites and balloons.
Quality of access
The basic ability to connect to the Internet is a precondition for access. Still, the definition of access is believed by some to be significantly broader and should take into account the quality of access. The WSIS+10 Outcome Document pleads in this regard for ‘an evolving understanding of what constitutes access, emphasizing the quality of that access. We acknowledge that speed, stability, affordability, language, local content and accessibility for persons with disabilities are now core elements of quality’.
A related issue is zero-rating; the provision of free-of-charge, ‘basic’ Internet services to end users. Several major service providers have partnered with mobile network operators to deliver these low-data-usage versions of services. Although zero-rating practices are able to guarantee affordable access, opponents of zero-rating claim that it requires discrimination among online content and that it violates the fundamental principles of net neutrality. Furthermore, it can raise development concerns, since it gives preferential treatment to dominant web services compared to local competitors.
Development and economic issues
Other development and economic issues affect access. Among them is the question of redistribution of revenue generated by the Internet. On one hand, telecommunication operators aim for higher income, arguing that they need to invest in the upgrading of the telecommunication infrastructure. On the other, content companies - the main beneficiaries of the Internet boom - argue that access providers already charge end users for Internet access. A related issue concerns over-the-top services: in several of countries, national regulators are faced with the question of how to regulate these services, amid increasing pressure by operators. The economic model of connectivity has also been challenged. Since the Internet model places the burden on one end, many developing countries have been complaining about the unfavourable economic conditions of the Internet economy. These issues are described in more detail in other sections on development and economic issues.