At times like these, when the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close in over 130 countries, offices to shutter, and people to practice “social distancing,” the internet is providing a lifeline.
More than ever, it has become our public square to access critical information and to meet. It enables the rights to education, health, and religion with telemedicine, schools, and even religious worship going online, and may be essential for saving peoples’ livelihoods and key parts of economies.
However, this global shift assumes that all people have access to the internet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
Approximately half the world’s population – 46 percent – is not connected to the internet according to United Nations estimates, despite the fact that internet access is considered a fundamental enabler of human rights and governments around the world have committed to provide universal and affordable internet access by 2020. People in the least developed countries remain the least connected, but digital divides exist in better connected countries, too.
In times of social distancing, people without a reliable connection may be disconnected entirely or risk their health to find a connection. Some students in China reportedly hiked for hours and braved the cold in search of a decent cell signal to listen to online classes on mountaintops. One in five school aged children in the United States don’t have access to a computer or high-speed internet at home. And women and older people are less likely to have internet access in some countries.
In this time of crisis, it is essential to ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service. Governments and companies should take specific measures to mitigate disproportionate hardships that poor and marginalized populations experience. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission issued a pledge that commits participating companies to waive late payments and termination notices and open WIFI hotspots to people in need. Some mobile operators in Africa are offering zero-rated access to essential websites, and in South Africa, the official COVID-19 website was made free of charge, with no data or airtime required.
More can be done, such as lifting data caps and eliminating eligibility requirements for low-income targeted plans and supporting community-based solutions. These should complement longer-term strategies that make affordable internet access available for all.