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:
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.
Stressing on the need of more spectrum for inclusive internet, Dr.Pepper draws attention to the unfortunate policy of governments in some countries to view spectrum as a cash cow to make more money. Calling such a move counterproductive, he says that from a communications policy perspective, it’s best to have the spectrum out there being utilised.
The other challenge towards high speed connectivity is lack of backhaul, which poses as the biggest hurdle during attempts to migrate 2G to 3G and to 4G. Still, there are various areas without the adequate infrastructure. Facebook is working in partnership with Airtel Uganda and Bandwidth & Cloud Services Group (BCS), a wholesale bandwidth provider focused on deploying infrastructure in East Africa, to build approximately 770km fibre in northwest Uganda that, when completed, will provide backhaul connectivity covering more than 3 million people in Uganda and enable future cross-border connectivity to neighbouring countries.
Microsoft and Facebook have also entered into an agreement to build MAREA- a new subsea cable across the Atlantic, connecting America to Spain. The 6,600 km submarine cable system, will be operated and managed by Telxius, Telefónica’s telecommunications infrastructure company.
Dr.Pepper also talks about yet another interesting venture of Facebook- Aquila. It is a solar-powered plane that’s aimed at beaming internet to remote parts of the world. Aquila has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737, and weighs less than 1,000 pounds; efforts are ongoing to make it lighter.
In the beta testing edition of the inclusive internet index, few countries of the MENA region were assessed, though the number of the countries is expected to go up in upcoming editions of the survey. Among the Middle Eastern countries, Oman has the highest score, with an overall rank of 24th out of 75 countries globally (internet users: 84% of households; mobile subscribers: 130%; average mobile upload speed: 7,358 Kbps; average mobile download speed: 15,561 Kbps; average mobile latency: 58 ms; minimum network coverage 3G: 95%; female access to the internet: 60%).
Saudi Arabia is near the bottom of the 19 high-income nations in the index, with an overall ranking of 28th out of 75. Availability is a source of strength, driven mainly by high mobile penetration (tied for 1st place in the index), but its affordability rank is pulled down by its market competitiveness score. In spite of a great 4G coverage(85%) , Saudi Arabia didn’t score too well in terms of average mobile latency (70 ms); however in terms of female access to the internet, it delivered well (71%). UAE and Qatar weren’t included in the survey this year.
The report positions Egypt as one of the top-ranking countries in Africa, behind only South Africa and Morocco, with an overall ranking of 37th out of 75. It is 3rd in the region for readiness and relevance, thanks to high scores for policy and local content respectively.
Dr.Pepper says the goal is to have all the countries of the world above a critical threshold in ten years’ time from now. The key lies in relevant local content, super-fast networks, and removing gender gaps, he adds. Inclusive internet is the ultimate motive.
Countries would need to work around spectrum and backhaul issues, to accelerate the digital transition. Dr.Pepper highlights the significance of a strong symbiotic relationship between telecom operators and the application providers. When networks are better, people will not only use more data but also will be willing to pay more for better speeds and experience, which will translate into more revenues for the operator, he adds. Application based business model is the way, going forward, Dr.Pepper says.
Reiterating the findings of the World Economic Forum report, Digital Transformation Initiative: Telecommunications Industry, Dr.Pepper says, regulations need to be lightened and more focus needs to be given to education and capacity building, in the wake of the new demands of the digital model.
Dr.Pepper talks of how Facebook is working with various stakeholders of the connectivity ecosystem, to improve internet access, enable inclusion, with profitable ROI for the various parties involved. An ambitious project of Facebook in this direction is the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). It’s an engineering focused initiative driven by operators, infrastructure providers, system integrators, and other technology companies that aim to redefine the approach to build and deploy telecom network infrastructure. TIP is primarily exploring new approaches and technologies across three initial focus areas: access, backhaul, and core and management. Dr.Pepper says that various concrete projects are currently in progress, which would benefit the operators.
As is evident, operators and policy makers need to tread a path of innovation, with lighter regulations, and improved collaboration, to provide high speed internet. Simultaneously, there has to be focus on creation of relevant content and services so that both men and women can go online and leverage the power of the digital era, and operators can monetise their investments.