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May 06

2021

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Internet affordability: A call for normative approaches in broadband policies to narrow the digital gap

Scholar Ruha Benjamin argues that emerging technologies can reinforce interlocking forms of discrimination. As the continent deliberated on digital rights and inclusion in Africa during Paradigm Initiative’s annual #DRIF21, the above argument by Benjamin calls for further interrogation, especially when discussing topics surrounding internet affordability.

During the unpacking internet access in Namibia session, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Researcher Federico Links noted that young people cannot make use of all digital applications available to them in the digital sphere. Further adding that when discussing topics such as access to the internet, deliberations should not just centre around issues of infrastructure but that data cost should form part of discussions.

Additionally, Helene Vosloo, Head of Economics and Sector Research at the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) said ICT is an enabler and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that there is a need to look at how we conduct internet access in Namibia. One such limitation involves internet affordability.

Data cost and the previously excluded

The UN Broadband Commission, guided by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) developed a ‘1 for 2’ threshold approach (1GB equal 2% or less of average monthly income).

Namibia has not yet adopted this threshold in its broadband framework, and with the impact of COVID-19 on various sectors including education, digital activists are calling for the urgent implementation of broadband policies.

The two top internet service providers in the country, Mobile Telecommunications Company (MTC) and Telecom Namibia’s TN Mobile who dominate the industry are owned by the same stakeholders.

This according to Vosloo limits effective competition in the sector which in turn disadvantages previously excluded persons. “Consumers do not have a choice, so they are left to deal with what they are given” adds Vosloo. For instance, in Namibia, Pre-paid data with TN Mobile is nine US dollars for 1GB and 16 US dollars for 1.5GB with MTC. Namibia’s inherited apartheid history has set inequality borders which are becoming more visible in the digital sphere. For example, in the capital city Windhoek, previously segregated communities such as Katutura tend to have slower internet speed. According to Links, the high cost to connect limits those who have been previously excluded, “as some communities only have access either to 2G or 3G networks,” adds Links.

Call for normative approaches in broadband policies

If the production and dissemination of information is not open to all in terms of access to resources (affordable data), which includes but is not limited to distribution and recognition (capabilities), then people’s right to fully participate in the digital sphere is hindered. Thus, normative approaches should act as cognitive maps for ICT professionals. When dealing with data cost regulation, normative approaches should be the prescribed base, which digital governing bodies must implement to bring about equality in the digital networked society.

The best time to start thinking about including the previously excluded is now, especially when current debates about digital policies are ongoing. Such excluded communities need to form part of the discussion, they need to decide on which policies and frameworks work best for their communities.

Vosloo advises that we need to allow those without access to share in the decision making process when it comes to ICT infrastructure. “There is a need for a collective drive on how to assist those in rural areas. We should bring prices down for everyone, we need to start sharing” says Vosloo. Should this be ignored, digital activists argue that inequalities will widen.

 

By: Emsie Erastus | Paradigm Initiative | Digital Rights and Inclusion Media Fellow 2021

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