Universal broadband access - is it achievable still?

Universal broadband access - is it achievable still?

Since the early 2010s, connectivity has become central to the lives of people living in developed markets. It was very apparent that the internet was fast becoming life-changing technology, as it enables levers to streamline productivity and deliver entertainment in ways that were deemed unimaginable decades ago. Now at the end of 2023, we see multiple organisations and bodies calling for universal broadband access to become a basic human right.

Finland was a trailblazer after its government decreed broadband universal service as a legal right for its citizens in 2010. The law obliged broadband players to provide citizens access to a broadband connection with a minimum of 1Mbps, and other nations followed suit. Finland's communication minister Suvi Linden argued at the time that internet services are no longer for the purpose of entertainment, but central to building a modern information society - a somewhat clairvoyant move.

ITU Secretary-General and Co-Vice Chair of the Broadband Commission Doreen Bogdan-Martin said in the agency’s manifesto “tech is racing ahead and billions of people are being left behind”, and called for all stakeholders to join hands to deliver universal broadband access by 2030. According to data from the ITU, around 3.6 billion people were still offline in 2020 due to the lack of affordable handsets, constrained access to infrastructure and poor digital skills.

But is universal broadband access still achievable? Since 2020 we’ve had a global pandemic and several conflicts affecting the macroeconomic landscape. The connectivity gaps are mainly in developing markets, and they have arguably experienced the ramifications of global events the most.

Acceptable connectivity

Speaking to Developing Telecoms, Euroconsult senior consultant Dimitri Buchs noted that emerging markets are starting to follow Western nations in recognising broadband as a universal right and much needed commodity, but “we’re far from having everyone connected”.  A major challenge is that subscriber demand has changed from 23 years ago, when 1Mbps was the basic downlink broadband speed in Finland - but today, this wouldn’t be considered acceptable in developing markets such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Now governments are drafting policies to deliver “quality broadband” - as Buchs puts it - due to the rapidly increasing desire to tap into connectivity-intensive technologies and services.

“You can have access to the internet but if you can only use it for WhatsApp and nothing else, then does it count really as being connected? I would say partly”, argues Buchs. “What governments want is for people to be able to work from home and give all school children access to the internet. The question being asked is whether 1Mbps or 100Mbps sufficient? That's where we're headed right in the future, the shift from connecting everyone to connecting everyone with quality connectivity. But I think we're far from it, because we're still far from even connecting everyone.”

Buchs argued the race to spread connectivity as widely and thinly as possible is not the right approach, suggesting the focus should be on bringing down prices of services.

“Even if 100% of the global population by 2025 has access to the internet, it won't mean that everyone will be truly connected. I think the first step is really to find a way to lower the price of services and equipment to connect more people. Once this is done, you can hope to connect everyone. That's really the way to go,” said Buchs.

In a study this year, Euroconsult found that the same challenges identified by the ITU persist today. People are still struggling to afford devices, they possess low IT literacy, and have other priorities over paying to be connected.

“Some people don't care about connecting to the internet, but this group of people is decreasing year after year. One of the main reasons why there are still billions unconnected is that it's still expensive to buy a smartphone or laptop. Our data showed there are now 2.6 billion unconnected at the end of 2022 and only 591 million can tap into satellite connectivity. These remaining people are either not interested or cannot afford service. Those are the last barriers to universal broadband connectivity and this for sure is more of an issue in emerging markets than in mature markets,'' said Buchs.

Are satellites the answer?

Developing markets pose many challenges for operators when it comes to deploying connectivity, ranging from a lack of basic economic infrastructure, challenging terrain, and low ARPU to justify investment. A solution that is ascending to the forefront of minds to tackle connectivity gaps is satellite technology, which can be used to connect remote communities in the most difficult terrains to the internet for the first time.

As Buchs mentioned, only around 591 million people have access to satellite connectivity, but the technology is expanding every year due to players such as Space X’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, deploying and providing competition in the market.

“Satellite technology is improving and more people in the most remote parts of the world will have access to internet sources soon - that's where satellite has a key role to play. Terrestrial networks are cheaper for subscribers to afford, but it's expensive to deploy fibre to islands in - for example - the Philippines. That's where I think satellite is the solution going forward. With Starlink, especially with their Generation Two constellation and potentially Project Kuiper and OneWeb, prices should go down.”

“Not everyone will be addressable by satellite in the future, but more people will be. That's the aim of the ITU, other international organisations and governments, to try to connect as many people as possible. I believe there's a brighter future for internet connectivity through satellite thanks to technology improvements, but we're still not there yet,” said Buchs.

But satellite connectivity can be incredibly expensive, with home connections costing between $50 to $60 per month even in developing markets. A solution to leveraging satellite connectivity in an affordable manner is WiFi hotspots. Satellite-powered WiFi hotspots are placed in the centre of rural communities, connecting hundreds of people.

“I think it is a better option in emerging markets to connect more people, because it's usually targeting small villages. You're seeing this technology more and more especially in Latin America where it's very popular. It's growing quickly in Indonesia and Malaysia, but in Africa, it's not growing as quickly,” said Buchs.

Despite the challenges and obstacles, the rewards from connecting people are endless. “Internet connectivity is becoming a basic right, all organisations and governments know this. You basically cannot live in a society where most of your population is not connected to the Internet; this happens maybe in some Pacific Islands, but even there more and more people are connected. It enables a route for people in remote areas to work and that leads to growth in the economy.”

The pain in terrain 

Analysys Mason principal consultant Ian Adkins said that the ambition to achieve universal broadband access will ultimately be down to deployment costs. He highlights how expensive it is even for developed nations to deploy on remote islands that need dedicated solutions to connect to the outside world.

Noting that there is an affordability and skills issue, Adkins asserts that the overarching barrier is deployment in terrain that makes “building physical infrastructure in difficult to reach locations a major engineering and construction challenge.”

The more remote a location is, the higher the cost per premise. Adkins highlighted the Republic of Ireland’s National broadband plan as an example which Analysys Mason helped to develop.

“It might start between GBP £400-£600 per premise, but once you build the network out [to rural locations] you start getting to £1,000, then £2,000. As you go into harsher terrain and remote areas, suddenly you might be between £10,000 to £100,000. The per premise price essentially becomes ridiculous, and effectively that cost-to-premise curve is different in every geographical locality,” notes Adkins.

The goal of universal broadband access is not as simple as one may think; it’s not just erecting a tower and laying a few cables. The targets are shifting year after year, and it will take a huge collective effort to reach this overall goal.

Having quality high-speed and reliable connectivity will become the true definition of universal connectivity access. As mentioned, the UN is aiming for universal broadband access to be achieved by 2030, a mere seven years away. Even if service providers are able to hit close to the 100% coverage mark, will it be considered a success? If indeed it is deemed so, only half of the job will be truly completed as the world’s voracious demand for data expands year after year.

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