By Victor Asemota
The issue of ensuring universal access to the internet is an old one that has become increasingly better understood, and more achievable, since the early days of the world wide web, when access was limited to a few.
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Today, internet access is taken for granted by people in developed countries – fast, always-on broadband is a mainstay of their lives and economies. In the Global South, which refers to low and middle-income countries across the world, including Nigeria, the situation is very different.
However, access to the internet is often unreliable, slow and expensive – if it is available at all.
There are strong economic drivers behind the move to provide universal access. The internet continues to be a key engine of growth for businesses in Africa and globally, with McKinsey’s estimates putting its total GDP contribution in Africa at $300 billion within the coming decade.
Although Africa’s online population, which is currently estimated at 474 million by Internet World Stats, is said to have grown by a rate of over 10 000% since 2000, the continent is yet to enjoy a corresponding increase in the size of its web economy.
Growing this web economy and bridging the digital divide largely requires the achievement of universal access – people cannot learn to use and benefit from online services they cannot access. Rolling out telecommunications infrastructure and operating networks and providing internet access comes at a cost, however.
Governments, civil society and private sector organisations across the world are working on ways to provide internet access cheaply (if not freely), and reliably to everyone. One of the models gaining traction globally in both developed and Global South countries is free public wifi.
Free public wifi is provided through a number of cost models. An increasingly common one is full subsidisation by the relevant local government authority. This sees free public wifi access provided in places like tourist hot spots, educational institutions, transport hubs and so on. There are several reasons why a government would choose to do this. It is a value-add to citizens, enabling them to connect and derive the economic benefits thereof, which then increases the tax base.
It makes the city or town more attractive to tourists, as they can stay connected at no cost. Moreover, a city-wide wifi network can be used for far more than just free connectivity. Connected trash cans, power grids, traffic lights and sensors can all help turn a city into a smart city, with all of the benefits it brings. An example of this model is the Tshwane Free Wifi project rolled out by the City of Tshwane, with Project Isizwe and Herotel Telecoms, in South Africa and the extensive government-backed network in Seoul, South Korea,
Another model relies on advertising revenue to cover the cost of the service. This model has been rolled out here, in Lagos and Abuja, by Google through its Google Station Project. Venues, system integrators, businesses and ISPs, with access to fibre, can use the GStation platform (in this instance) to set up, maintain and monetise their wifi networks.
These free public wifi access points are provided in high-traffic areas like bus stations, markets, shopping malls, airports, and universities. Ad space is sold on a first-come-first-served basis to organisations looking to reach people in those areas, and this provides a revenue stream to the network and platform provider. The ads are shown on the login screen so every user sees them. This model is in use in other countries,including South Africa (in the Western Cape), and France (WiFiLib) which uses a combination of advertising revenue, premium access and business services to cover the cost.
Government has a mandate to increase internet access to all Nigerians. It cannot do it alone, however. Nigerian organisations have a responsibility to do their bit as well, however they can, whether it is through CSI, partnership-based models or other means.
Ultimately, the benefits will accrue to everyone. More connected consumers means more informed people with better access to education and job opportunities. Education and jobs give them better earning potential which in turn drives consumer spending and tax revenue. It’s a win, but it needs all parties to work together to deliver this win.