By Nilmini Rubin
A few years ago, $100 million was spent on new roads in Liberia, but the decision was made not to lay internet cables beneath the roads. At the time, this would have cost an additional $1 million; installing those cables today requires a new construction project at a price of tens of millions of dollars.
Failing to adopt a “build once” approach and installing multiple types of infrastructure at the same time did more than waste money – it wasted lives. Laura Woodman, CEO of NetHope, writes that “as a result, connectivity across Liberia remains poor, a fact that hampered Ebola response efforts as community health centres struggled to coordinate efforts.”
The lack of internet connectivity made it hard to map Ebola outbreaks, mobilize communities, and manage supplies and logistics in order to reduce transmission of the deadly disease.
Unfortunately, this Liberian example is not exceptional, it is typical: Most road, water, electrical and sewer projects don’t incorporate internet exchange points, cables or towers.
“Historically we considered roads, water and electricity as infrastructure, but that is no longer enough,” asserts USAID’s Ann Mei Chang, executive director of the US Global Development Lab at the IEEE Internet Inclusion Conference in Washington, DC.
More than 4 billion people – almost 60% of the world’s population – currently lack internet access. If we are going to connect the rest of the world, we must consider internet as a core part of infrastructure.
Action in Congress
US Congress Representatives Ed Royce, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Eliot Engel, Grace Meng and Michael McCaul sponsored the Digital Global Access Policy (GAP) Act to promote a “build once” approach to incorporating internet provision into other infrastructure projects. It said that if the United States supports the construction of a rural road, water pipe or electrical tower in a developing country, the private sector should be invited to lay cable in the same trench or string wires along the same towers.
The Digital GAP Act was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives in September 2016 and now awaits its passage through the Senate.
A “build once” approach can reduce the costs of deploying broadband by 70-90%, according to the World Bank. Reducing the cost of broadband deployment can help lower the prices people pay for internet access. As affordability is a key impediment in developing countries, lowering the cost of internet access can directly impact the number of people going online. Countries are starting to recognize this: Both India and Nigeria’s National Broadband Plans encourage the sharing of infrastructure. Companies, including Tetra Tech where I work, have started offering services that install internet infrastructure in rural and urban areas, while minimizing the cost and impact on the environment.
Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, praised the Digital GAP Act’s approach and noted that it would make sense to implement this approach in the United States too. It’s already underway in some US states and cities, such as Arizona, Minnesota, Utah and San Francisco.
‘Build once’ and build partnerships
A convergence of international efforts, including a “build once” approach, could connect 1.5 billion people by 2020. That progress would need to be sustained as we look to get the remaining 2.5 billion people connected by 2030. Partnerships are being developed between governments, businesses, civil society and investors. These efforts include work through the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the Global Connect Initiative, the World Economic Forum’s Internet for All project, the Broadband Commission, the Internet Society, and the Internet Governance Forum.
Global investment in internet access is increasing. At April’s Global Connect Initiative meeting, donors and companies committed to doubling finance for internet access by 2020. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation says it recently “surpassed $1 billion in current financing support to global information and communications technology (ICT) businesses.”
Meanwhile, the European Investment Bank (EIB) now has investments in 180 ICT projects worth $70 billion and is making $2 billion worth of new ICT investments each year.
The World Bank is beginning to see an increase in country demand for ICT and connectivity products and services.
All of these efforts help increase the number of people online every year. The decisions we make now will impact if and how the internet reaches the 4 billion people who still lack connectivity. It’s up to us to do it well.