by Kristina Olausson

Nearly two decades after the inception of the Internet, about 3.5 billion people in the world are connected. For many, the Internet is now something we take for granted as a natural part of our everyday lives. We use it to connect with friends and family, pay our bills and keep ourselves informed about what goes on in the world. However, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 3.9 billion people remain without an Internet connection. With the increasing importance of the Internet to manage our lives, this gap between the connected and non-connected has started to cause concern. Some even claim that the Internet should be seen as a fundamental right, as is access to clean water and food. Looking at the current situation in Europe, we seem far from being able to ensure such a fundamental right. But is this really a problem and how can we solve it?

Two perspectives on Internet as a fundamental right

Even if discussions about the Internet and fundamental rights have a multitude of dimensions, one way of simplifying them is to make two basic distinctions. This first one is the line which discusses the Internet from an “equivalence” perspective, arguing that we should be able to exercise the same fundamental rights online as we have offline. An example of this is freedom of expression. However, here the focus will be the right to Internet from an “access” perspective of having the right to an Internet connection. The “equivalence” perspective focuses more on upholding fundamental rights in an online environment.

The “access” perspective

Peter Altmaier, Germany´s acting finance minister, recently said in an interview “An uninterrupted, good mobile network and fast internet are part of public welfare, they are a fundamental right”. While the Internet is not formally recognised by many countries as a fundamental right, its importance has been formalised among others by the United Nation´s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). One of the goals aims to ‘significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’. The Internet will also be essential for the implementation and monitoring of the other SDGs.

A vast majority of the people who have an Internet connection are from developing countries (2.5 billion users), when compared to one billion in developed countries. However, Internet penetration rates (which correspond to the percentage of the total population of a given country or region that uses the Internet) show a different story. While the rate is 81 percent in developed countries, it is only about half or 40 percent in developing countries and 15 percent in the Least Developed Countries.

Also, measurements for individual regions show big gaps in connectivity. The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), an annual report by the European Commission, shows Europe’s digital performance and competitiveness. It combines a range of indicators (connectivity, human capital, use of Internet, Integration of Digital Technology, Digital Public Services, etc.). The 2016 Scoreboard showed that Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands have the most advanced digital economies in the EU, whereas, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy have the lowest scores on the index. The scores range from 0.32 (Romania) to 0.70 (Denmark).

Thus, the world is more or less divided into two: those with an Internet connection and those who are not connected. Could you imagine living in modern society without access to the Internet? At least in most Western countries, a basic Internet connection has become fundamental to be able to register for courses at University, pay bills, register for public services etc. The cost of not having an Internet connection becomes bigger with the increasing number of people who have it. Internet is thus becoming more of a necessity, rather than a luxury.

What is required to reach a digitally mature society in Europe?

The differences in connectivity between different regions and countries also show the complexity in ensuring full connectivity for everyone, no matter where they live. The DESI 2017 report shows three major challenges in order to providing Internet for all in Europe.

Digital skills: More and more people use online public services if they have access to the Internet. However, one group is left behind (except for those without an Internet connection). These are middle-aged people with low education. For example, the DESI shows that they have one of the lowest uses of eGovernment services (39%) and also shows the least progress between 2011 and 2016. The connectivity gap cannot only be solved by providing more access. People also have to know how to use the Internet. As most young people are already digitally literate, the private and public sector employers play a crucial role in providing education and skills-development.

Urban-rural divide: A substantial gap can be seen between rural and national penetration rates, even if it has decreased over the past years. While 66% of rural homes had a fixed broadband subscription across the EU in 2016, the penetration rates varied greatly between the Member States (Bulgaria with about 40% up to Luxembourg with 95%). Ensuring connectivity is often harder in rural areas, as costs for building infrastructure is higher and the density of customers is lower than for urban areas. However, closing this gap becomes a question not only about competitiveness but also fairness among citizens.

Fast-speed Internet: Other values in the DESI which are important are the statistics on the penetration of fast internet speeds. As we use more and more services, carrying huge amounts of data such as video-platforms, the need for a high-speed Internet connection increases. In many cases the value of the service and its functionality is dependent on the speed. In Europe however, only 27% of European homes subscribe to fast broadband access of at least 30 Mbps and only 11% of European homes currently subscribe to ultrafast broadband (at least 100 Mbps).

While the European Commission co-funds the 5G-PPP public-private partnership with €700 million, private funding will be required to reach a total budget of €3.5 billion by 2025. At the same time, the DESI shows declining profits among European telecom companies compared to other regions such as the US for example. Ensuring an investment-friendly framework for European connectivity providers thus becomes essential.

Stating that the Internet is a fundamental right would today be an empty promise in most of Europe. Yet, the gap between connected people and those without Internet becomes an increasing concern as society is digitised. Giving the Internet status as a fundamental right would demand more political responsibility, but politicians might find it hard to guarantee such a right. First of all, it would have to be decided what type of Internet is to be provided (speed etc.). It could be tempting to guarantee a minimum speed, while most services will demand high-speed Internet. It is thus better to look at what is provided privately to spur demand and supply. Secondly, even if a person had Internet access, without the knowledge of how to use online services would make this connection useless. It can be argued that both private and public efforts are needed to solve this issue, while keeping in mind that people will acquire digital skills in different settings and ages. Finally, the rural-urban gap also shows that key challenges are seen in ensuring coverage in all areas. Incentivising investment will be the key. Thus, what Europe needs is a combination of investment incentives and educational efforts.

17 December 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 70