• The pandemic has demonstrated how important internet access is for education and work, and yet 3.7 billion people globally are not online.
  • Companies tend not to prioritise connecting the poorest communities, which often lack economic resources and basic infrastructure.
  • The Giga project is exploring the potential of a connectivity credit scheme, which would incentivise companies to connect less profitable areas.
  • There are significant development and business benefits in getting more people online – but a strong alliance and clear global standard will be needed to make connectivity credits work.

The pandemic has demonstrated just how important internet access now is for education and work; people who can’t get online are at significant disadvantage. Currently, 3.7 billion people in the world do not have internet access – almost half the world’s population. The gaps tend to be in the poorest areas, as companies can’t make a business case for investing in communities that have few economic resources. The cost of connecting the poorest communities also tends to be higher, as they lack other fundamental infrastructure, such as electricity or roads.

Connectivity credits are one possible solution. These would function like carbon credits, creating incentives for service providers and other technology companies to extend their networks to the poorest regions. Under this system, institutions such as schools would be granted credits, based on the difficulty and cost of connecting them. Network operators, internet service providers, and other partners would then collect credits as they provide connectivity.

The Giga project, a partnership between UNICEF and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is currently exploring the potential of a connectivity credit scheme to connect schools in poor areas. The project aims to ensure that every school in the world has access to the internet – connecting more than 1 billion young people and giving them access to information, opportunity, and choice. It is already connecting the first schools in each partner country and is now investigating diverse technologies, business models and regulatory arrangements to provide broadband connectivity solutions to schools and communities.

Giga will provide, for the first time, a sense of the scale of the need for school connectivity. Currently, no-one knows how many schools there are in the world. Giga has mapped 1 million in the last 18 months, and over the next 36 months the project will have live data about somewhere between 6 and 9 million schools.

Giga is exploring how connectivity credits could help get schools in rural areas online
Image: Giga

Projects like Giga could have a key role to play in a connectivity credits initiative. Working with ministries of telecommunication and finance, the project can assess the difficulty of connecting any given school based on factors like distance from existing infrastructure, or difficulty of terrain. It can also help to assess how well the connection is actually working. Because Giga monitors school connectivity in real-time, it can monitor the actual efficacy and distribution of gigabytes in granular detail. Connectivity monitoring is also built into the network itself; once a facility is connected it automatically reports on its connectivity status.

Schools could act as connectivity hubs for poor communities

Eventually, connectivity credits might allow schools to access software or services online, or incentivise the creation of open-source digital public goods. The idea would be that schools could also act as ‘connectivity hubs’, making it easier for other organisations and individuals in the area to get connected. One problem in rural connectivity is around population density and revenue per user. Using schools as ‘hubs’ for connectivity strengthens the case for investment at a national level. It would open up new primary market for internet service providers, network operators, and a secondary market for a wide range of hosting providers and other digital public good partners

Backing for connectivity credits

There are many benefits to getting more people online, both in terms of development and in terms of creating business opportunities. It creates new markets for digital commerce and enterprise, and more space for innovation. On a global level, the market could access the backing, or reserve, to issue more credits for certain areas, or could raise more money and increase the size of the reserve, should it need to.

One of the many lessons from the experience of introducing carbon credits is that a similar scheme for connectivity will work best if there is a strong alliance, and a global, unified standard from the beginning. A connectivity credit framework could create a global marketplace for connecting the most difficult-to-reach populations.

Governments are the ideal partner for making connectivity credits work at a national level. They already tax internet service providers and mobile network operators, and provide the spectrum licenses these businesses need to operate. This creates the potential for tax breaks, subsidies and other guarantees to be used to make the scheme attractive to businesses. Backing could also come from existing national subsidies for telecommunications, such as Universal Service Funds, which are often under-utilised.

To find out more about Giga and connectivity credits, visit www.gigaconnect.org/credits