23. Beyond the basics: Quality, speed, affordability, relevance

Eleanor Sarpong
Alliance for Affordable Internet
  • National figures on Internet access currently overlook whether investments in broadband connectivity are improving quality, speed, affordability and relevance.

  • Sound planning, an effective policy environment and incentives have helped developing countries lower the costs of digital services and devices.

  • Using meaningful connectivity as the standard for truly universal, affordable and accessible broadband can help developing countries measure and better address income and gender disparities.

  • Development co-operation actors should support regulatory and policy frameworks that encourage competitive markets and advance meaningful broadband connectivity.

Having access to the Internet is one thing. Having meaningful access – in terms of speed, devices, data and frequency of use – is another. As governments turn towards recovery from the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, improving citizens’ access to affordable broadband should be a priority. The meaningful connectivity standard, developed by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), raises the bar for Internet access. It can help governments set broadband policy targets and monitor whether their digital development is providing quality and affordable Internet access for all.

The right policies and planning can go a long way towards ensuring that broadband markets are healthy, competitive and serve the evolving needs of users. As private, government and development co-operation actors pursue the goal of universal access to 4G-equivalent mobile broadband,1 they should consider how their investments and policies also can promote meaningful connectivity that is affordable, accessible and inclusive to all.

The meaningful connectivity standard captures users’ evolving expectations for their digital experiences across four dimensions: a fast and affordable Internet connection with enough data available at all times using appropriate smart devices to access relevant digital content.2 This approach looks beyond the traditional binary metric of connectivity – whether people are on line or offline – and evaluates the quality of their access. The distinction can alter the connectivity picture within and across countries significantly. For example, 84.1% of people in Colombia have Internet access, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). But, using the A4AI measure, only 50.9% have meaningful connectivity (A4AI, 2020[1]). Meaningful connectivity metrics also highlight digital inequality between men and women: In Ghana, for example, the gender gap in terms of daily use of the Internet is 5.8%; when measured in terms of meaningful connectivity, though, the gender gap more than doubles for daily Internet use to 14.9% (Figure 23.1). This suggests that in addition to factors such as lack of digital skills and their greater concerns over privacy that affect their level of Internet use, women who are connected often have poorer quality of access or inadequate devices relative to connected men (World Wide Web Foundation, 2020[2]).

By adopting national targets for meaningful connectivity, policy makers can set more ambitious and specific goals that aim for higher quality and more inclusive broadband connectivity. To meet the target in their particular national context, governments should use an evidenced-based approach to identify disparities and gaps, develop policy solutions through inclusive and participatory processes, and tackle the four dimensions of meaningful connectivity in phases where necessary. Box 23.1 describes how policy makers in Indonesia are using 4G signal data to measure subnational disparities in meaningful connectivity and help target mobile infrastructure investments.

No matter how fast the connection, how many data are available, how smart the device or how relevant the digital content, people do not have meaningful connectivity if they cannot afford mobile services. Almost 2.5 billion people live in countries where the most affordable smartphone costs more than a quarter of the average monthly income (A4AI and World Wide Web Foundation, 2020[4]).

Countries’ progress towards providing affordable broadband is tracked in two ways: The Affordability rankings and the Affordability Drivers Index3 (ADI). Progress in infrastructure and access, as well as improvements in the policy environment that enables them, are critical criteria that improve a country’s ADI score. A high ADI score corresponds to reduced broadband costs for consumers.

In 2020, broadband prices in 57 of the 100 countries where prices were measured failed to meet the so-called “1 for 2” affordability threshold; that is, 1 gigabyte (GB) of mobile broadband data available at a cost equal to or less than 2% of per capita gross national income (GNI)4 (A4AI, 2020[3]). This means that more than 1 billion people live in countries where 1 GB of data is simply too expensive (A4AI, 2020[5]). While improving, progress towards attaining universal affordability has been generally slow. For example, in 52 of the low- and middle-income countries that A4AI analyses each year, 1 GB of mobile data has become more affordable on average, with costs falling from 7% to 2.7% of GNI per capita over the period 2015-20.5 Least developed countries enjoyed a 15% improvement in affordability from 2018 to 2020, with costs at 7.2% of GNI per capita in 2020. However, huge disparities persist between countries (Figure 23.2). The least affordable country for mobile broadband is the Central African Republic, where 1 GB of data is priced at 24.4% of GNI per capita.

more than 1 billion people live in countries where 1 GB of data is simply too expensive  

Given income and other disparities within countries, it is important for governments to track subnational broadband and device affordability. Data costs in South Africa, 1.4% of GNI per capita (A4AI, 2020[6]), meet the national affordability target, for instance. Yet, 60% of the population cannot afford 1 GB of data.6 To address this, South Africa’s Competition Commission launched a market inquiry into the factors driving high data services prices7 and issued a ruling in 2020 to force operators to drop prices by between 30% and 50%. The country’s two leading mobile operators, MTN and Vodacom, complied with lower prices, with Vodacom cutting the effective price of some of its lower cost bundles by half (Buthelezi, 2020[7]).

In some countries, income inequality means some people cannot access broadband services because they cannot afford a mobile device, for example a smartphone. In 2021, the country with the most affordable smartphones was the United Kingdom, where the lowest priced smartphone cost the equivalent of 0.70% GNI per capita (Figure 23.3). By contrast, Figure 23.4 shows that smartphones in Azerbaijan are unaffordable, with the lowest priced smartphone costing consumers 333.37% of GNI per capita.8

Subsidies and tax breaks, including removing luxury taxes on digital devices, can increase device uptake and may incentivise manufacturers to produce low-cost devices for consumers (A4AI and World Wide Web Foundation, 2020[4]). For example, in Costa Rica, the National Telecommunications Fund, FONATEL, offers qualifying families subsidies of up to 100% of the cost of a laptop.9 In Kenya, removing the 16% value added tax (VAT) on handsets in 2009 resulted in a 200% increase in handset purchases within two years of the tax exemption. Similarly, Colombia saw a rise in mobile adoption in 2017, one year after exempting mobile devices from VAT (up to USD 245) and removing VAT on personal desktop and laptop computers valued up to USD 550 (A4AI, 2020[9]).

Subsidies and tax breaks, including removing luxury taxes on digital devices, can increase device uptake and may incentivise manufacturers to produce low-cost devices for consumers.  

The ITU estimates that a total investment of USD 428 billion is required globally for broadband infrastructure, digital skills, local content development and policy support to ensure universal access of 4G equivalent quality by 2030 (ITU, 2020[10]). The policy environment and planning around these investments will have a significant impact on the quality, accessibility and affordability of broadband for users. Thanks to sound broadband planning, a number of countries have made remarkable improvements in data affordability over the last six years, among them Colombia, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Rwanda. In Rwanda, for instance, the price of 1 GB of data has fallen from 20.2% to 3.39% of average monthly income since 2015 (A4AI, 2020[5]) as a result of its Vision 2020 plan and support from development co-operation partners.

Moreover, the policy environment and planning for broadband can shape how broadband markets and the industry react. Good broadband policies and practices set out a clear vision and specific and inclusive objectives and targets. The A4AI good practices database10 and Rural Broadband Policy Framework11 offer guidance for policy makers. Its review of good practices across countries suggests that broadband planning should address three important areas:

  1. 1. broadband infrastructure provisions including updating licensing frameworks towards technology neutrality; strengthening spectrum management; and removing or at least reducing tariffs and import duties on devices and exploring financing schemes to help expand device ownership

  2. 2. inclusion targets to improve the availability of high-quality, affordable broadband services across geographies and particularly in underserved rural areas (Nakagaki and Sarpong, 2021[11]) and specific strategies to improve gender and social inclusion

  3. 3. demand-side objectives to increase the uptake of digital devices and services, with a focus on improving digital skills and supporting local and relevant content creation.

Stakeholder roles in broadband planning must be well defined and targets backed by adequate resources and funding. Plans that ensure healthy, competitive broadband markets, for example, could save users in low- and middle-income countries up to USD 3.42 per GB (A4AI, 2019[12]). Open inclusive and consultative policy making is also encouraged as a way to strengthen broadband frameworks. In the Philippines for example, the country’s 2019 ADI score was increased by enhanced participatory processes in regulations (A4AI, 2019[12]).


[8] A4AI (2021), Device Pricing 2021 (database), Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://a4ai.org/research/device-pricing-2021.

[3] A4AI (2020), 4G for Meaningful Connectivity: Indonesia, Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://1e8q3q16vyc81g8l3h3md6q5f5e-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/WF_A4AI_MC-in-Indo_Screen_AW-1.pdf.

[9] A4AI (2020), A4AI Good Practices Database, Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://a4ai.org/good-practices-database (accessed on 13 October 2021).

[1] A4AI (2020), Meaningful Connectivity: A New Standard to Raise the Bar for Internet, Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://1e8q3q16vyc81g8l3h3md6q5f5e-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Meaningful-Connectivity.pdf.

[6] A4AI (2020), Mobile Broadband Pricing: Data for 2020 (database), Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://a4ai.org/extra/baskets/A4AI/2020/mobile_broadband_pricing_gni#.

[5] A4AI (2020), The 2020 Affordability Report, Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2020.

[12] A4AI (2019), The 2019 Affordability Report, Alliance for Affordable Internet, https://1e8q3q16vyc81g8l3h3md6q5f5e-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/A4AI_2019_AR_Screen_AW.pdf.

[4] A4AI and World Wide Web Foundation (2020), From Luxury to Lifeline: Reducing the Cost of Mobile Devices to Reach Universal Internet Access, Web Foundation, https://a4ai.org/research/from-luxury-to-lifeline-reducing-the-cost-of-mobile-devices-to-reach-universal-internet-access (accessed on 13 October 2021).

[7] Buthelezi, L. (2020), “Vodacom slashes its data prices further in agreement with the Competition Commission”, news24, https://www.news24.com/fin24/companies/ict/vodacom-slashes-its-data-prices-further-in-agreement-with-the-competition-commission-20210407.

[10] ITU (2020), Connecting Humanity: Assessing Investment Needs of Connecting Humanity to the Internet by 2030, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3895170?ln=en (accessed on 13 October 2021).

[11] Nakagaki, M. and E. Sarpong (2021), “Overcoming the rural digital divide and COVID-19 challenges to achieve the universal access goal”, Internet Sectoral Overview, Vol. 1/13, https://cetic.br/media/docs/publicacoes/6/20210608124958/internet_sectoral_overview-year_13-n1-connecting_the_unconnected.pdf.

[2] World Wide Web Foundation (2020), Women’s Rights Online: Closing the Digital Gender Gap for a More Equal World, Web Foundation, http://webfoundation.org/docs/2020/10/Womens-Rights-Online-Report-1.pdf.


← 1. The International Telecommunication Union defines universal Internet access as connecting 90% of the global population aged 10 years and older. See: https://www.itu.int/en/myitu/Publications/2020/08/31/08/38/Connecting-Humanity.

← 2. Meaningful connectivity is when a person can use the Internet every day using an appropriate device with enough data and a fast connection. For more detail, see: https://a4ai.org/meaningful-connectivity.

← 3. A4AI developed the ADI as a tool to assess how well a country’s policy, regulatory and overall supply-side environment is working to lower industry costs and ultimately create more affordable broadband.

← 4. The Broadband Commission calculates this “1 for 2” target using World Bank data for GNI per capita and the monthly price charged by a country’s largest operator for the cost of 1 GB of mobile broadband.

← 5. See: https://a4ai.org/mobile-data-costs-fall-but-as-demand-for-internet-services-surges-progress-remains-too-slow.

← 6. Based on internal A4AI modelling.

← 7. See: https://www.compcom.co.za/newsletter/data-market-inquiry.

← 8. These figures are based on an A4AI research. Affordability was determined by calculating the price relative to GNI per capita (https://a4ai.org/research/device-pricing-2021).

← 9. Through the Connected Households (Hogares Connectadas) programme, FONATEL also subsidises up to 80% of the cost of an Internet connection for families that qualify based on their household income. See: https://a4ai.org/studies/closing-the-digital-divide-with-universal-service-leadership.

← 10. The database and case studies are available at: https://a4ai.org/good-practices-database.

← 11. The Rural Broadband Policy Framework presents eight elements that policy makers should consider making affordable, high-speed Internet accessible more quickly in rural areas. See: https://a4ai.org/rural-broadband-policy-framework.

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