Social media celebrities are campaigning for unlimited data packages. Yet the reality is that more than half the country does not use the Internet. Educationists worry about whether online education will leave the children in homes with no coverage and no smartphones behind. Teachers send 12 pages of notes on Whatsapp, without thinking how it is going to be used. Middle-class parents are asking around how to buy color printers, so they can get back their phones and laptops without guilt.
The real problem is not data prices. It is how to get more people connected to the Internet. The After Access surveys conducted in 2018 show the bleak picture in Sri Lanka and other countries of the Global South.
The OECD has documented the problems the rich countries are facing:
Fixed and mobile operators are witnessing a surge in Internet traffic. In Korea, operators have reported traffic increases of 13%, reaching 45% to 60% of their deployed capacity. In Japan, NTT Communications reports an increase in data usage of 30% to 40%. In the United Kingdom, BT reports a 35% to 60% increase in daytime weekday fixed broadband usage. Telefónica reports nearly 40% more bandwidth in Spain, with mobile traffic growth of 50% and 25% in voice and data, respectively. In Italy, Telecom Italia has experienced a traffic increase of 63% and 36% in the fixed and mobile network, respectively. In France, Orange reports that its international infrastructure has been in high demand with 80% of the traffic generated by users in France going to the United States, where a good part entertainment and content is located.
In the United States, Verizon reported a 47% increase in use of collaboration tools and a 52% increase of virtual private network traffic. AT&T has seen mobile voice and Wi-Fi call minutes up 33% and 75% respectively, while consumer voice minutes were up 64% on fixed lines: a reversal of previous trends. AT&T also reported that its core network traffic was up 23%.
The New York Times has documented the problems faced by Americans in areas with spotty coverage. They are said to be working from parking lots outside Public Libraries and Starbucks.
We need the regulators in individual countries to present such data. But we need more. We need short and medium-term actions to double the number of households able to use the Internet, if we are going to ride out this pandemic without exacerbating inequalities even further.
Here are the recommendations from the OECD:
Summary of key recommendations
• Network operators and content providers should have access to the equipment supply chain and maintain controlled and prioritised access to datacentre facilities.
• The engineering workforce of network operators and content providers should be granted the mobility necessary to maintain functionality of the core and access networks and still be able to connect homes at customers’ sites. Alleviating administrative burdens would also help operators to deploy networks rapidly.
• Policy makers and regulators can alleviate congestion in mobile networks by releasing additional spectrum on a temporary basis or approving temporary commercial spectrum transactions between providers that put unused spectrum into service.
• Network operators should anticipate increased demand and prevent congestion by upgrading their interconnection capacity with other providers, including adding additional direct traffic exchange between networks (peering).
• Network operators should track key performance indicators of the Internet infrastructure such as the Domain Name System, particularly when they are provided externally.
• In the medium term, regulators could stimulate broadband providers to deploy more fibre deeper into the networks and gradually phase out xDSL technologies, where possible.
Our solutions will be different. But our policy makers and regulators must start the conversation now.
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