Dr. Robert Pepper, head, global connectivity and technology policy, Facebook. Dr. Robert Pepper, head, global connectivity and technology policy, Facebook.

Dr. Robert Pepper, head, global connectivity policy and planning, Facebook on how inclusive internet can be a reality by enabling affordability, availability, relevance and readiness.

Twenty years after the internet began to change people’s lives, less than half of the world’s population is able to benefit from it, according to The Inclusive Internet Index: Bridging digital divides, an Economist Intelligence Unit report, commissioned by Internet.org. This study is being considered as the first step towards creating an open data commons as a public good that addresses connectivity and use of the internet.

CommsMEA spoke to Dr. Robert Pepper, head, global connectivity policy and planning, Facebook to discuss the inferences from the survey and how going ahead, the right steps can be taken by the various stakeholders to make digital inclusion a reality and a strong enabler of the knowledge economy.

In terms of the telecom operators’ readiness for digital transformation, Dr. Pepper is of the opinion that while a majority of the C-suite executives have an idea of where they wish to see the companies a few years down the road, the thinking is yet to enable an organisation-wide cultural transformation.

While majority of the operators across the world continue to grapple with the transition from voice to data and economic challenges therein, it was refreshing to see few telcos making it to the crème-de-la crème in a recent survey of the top brands worldwide. Explaining that,   Dr. Pepper says the reason for this is that selected few operators have completed their digital transition successfully, and are now competing head-on with other digital disruptors. The transition didn’t come easy to them either. As for other telcos, the transformation has begun and the pace is praiseworthy for most of them. Transforming from the old-school telephone companies to new-age software based companies is not going to be easy; and there are challenges along the way, that can be solved with a collaborative approach and innovation.

The relation of application providers and telcos hasn’t been a smooth one to start with. However, Dr. Pepper stresses that by a symbiotic relationship, both the parties can grow going forward. “We partner with the telcos to help them reduce the costs, create more demand, and move to new business models,” he says.

The inclusive internet index study by internet.org/Facebook was a step forward in the direction of taking stock of the state of affairs in connectivity. The first report is the result of beta testing of the model; only 75 countries worldwide were assessed therein. All the data has been made publicly available along with a series of tools to analyse the data. Further, everyone is invited to conduct and share their own analyses and, in the future, contribute data to this effort.

Four categories of inclusivity were identified after looking at the findings:

• Availability
• Affordability
• Readiness
• Relevance

Dr. Pepper tells CommsMEA the couple of inferences that he considers stand out against the rest. Firstly, there’s lot more to inclusion than being just connected. Internet inclusion is about being connected to the point that one can actually benefit from it. Secondly, while it’s obvious to expect that rich countries do better than poor countries in being connected, the report revealed that some of the middle-income and upper-lower income countries actually do better than some of the rich countries. Having more relevant content in local language is a strong enabler of inclusion, as was evident from Tanzania’s rankings (48.5/100).

One of the most disappointing findings was the growing gender gap. While the exact reasons for that are yet to be confirmed, hypothetically several factors might be responsible for that. A separate study by the Worldwide web foundation had found that women are “50% less likely to access the web than men, and once online, women are 30-50% less likely to use the web to access important information, seek economic opportunities or have their voices heard”. Given the fact that women have been observed to make more constructive use of the internet, the negative impact on inclusion multiplies with a widening gender gap. This is of concern and companies need to work to remove this disparity soon.

Needless to say, relevant content in local language is an enabler of digital inclusion. Dr.Pepper says there are three main types of local language content that are really relevant- e-government applications and services; e-commerce; and e-entertainment. Unless good progress is made in terms of all the three categories, inclusion wouldn’t be possible.

As for availability, it was observed that while there are a lot of people who are connected, a small proportion have a good 3G or 4G connection. Without LTE or LTE Advanced in place, it’s really difficult to make full use of the power of internet. “There are 3.5 billion people on the internet but then there are 4 billion people we want to be on the internet. Our mission is to make the world more connected and open,” Dr.Pepper says.

So, what are the barriers on the way of providing high speed internet to all? The two main obstacles are inadequate spectrum availability and lack of backhaul, according to Dr.Pepper. He elaborates, saying more licensed spectrum needs to be made available to the operators for them to be able to move into LTE. Some countries are too stingy when it comes to providing spectrum, they tend to give small stretches of spectrum in one go. However, Dr.Pepper  says that isn’t always a good idea since coherence issues then might hinder operators from enabling broadband.

With Express Wi-Fi, Facebook is working with carriers, internet service providers, and local entrepreneurs to help expand connectivity to underserved locations around the world. Currently, it’s live in India, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Indonesia. By this initiative, Facebook empowers local entrepreneurs to use software provided by Facebook, and working with local internet service providers or mobile operators to provide quality internet access to their neighbours and make a steady income.