There is much ongoing debate, globally, about internet access as a human right and whether or not it should be provided for free in order to bridge the digital divide and enable people to take advantage of that right.
While many, particularly telcos, are arguing against it, as they derive revenue from providing internet access services, there are many, including the UN, who are lobbying to make it a reality.
The arguments for free internet access centre on the economic benefits this could realise for ordinary citizens. A report by Deloitte, commissioned by Facebook, shows that extending internet access in countries in the Global South (like Nigeria) to levels seen in developed countries could increase living standards and raise incomes by up to $600 per year.
The report states that increased internet access could improve health conditions by reducing the incidence of disease through better information for patients and practitioners.
Further, the report says, extending free internet access to SMEs to levels seen in developed countries could enhance productivity by 25%, which would generate additional GDP of $2.2 trillion, increase GDP growth by 72% and create more than 140m new jobs. And this was in 2014 when the study was done.
These numbers are impressive, and offer an indication of what benefits internet access brings. It is when you talk to people whose lives have been changed, however, that you really get an indication of what free internet access means.
Take Samuel Olugbenga Ayeni. He’s an estate agent, designer and architect here in Lagos. He runs his business virtually – which means he doesn’t have to pay for expensive office space, and can work wherever his clients need him to be.
For him, success relies on reaching the right type of client base. His internet service provider, however, was expensive, and unreliable. This meant he had to work off his phone, which limited the applications he could use. All this meant that Samuel’s business was stagnating. Then he heard about the free public wifi available on the University of Lagos campus. Provided by Google via the Google Station platform, the free public wifi service at the University of Lagos is accessible to students and members of the public, like Samuel, who have come to see it as a fast, reliable solution.
For Samuel, it’s allowed him to widen his target market, increase awareness of his business and improve his work pace and earnings. For University of Lagos radiology student Akinnusi Oluwatobiloba the free wifi has helped him in a number of ways. He can access learning materials he needs during study hours when his lecturers are not there, or when they have no shared sufficient material. He is also able to get extra information and stay ahead of his fellow students and keep pace with his lecturers more easily, without spending his own meagre resources on internet access.
Akinnusi has also used the free public wifi on campus to teach himself programming through Source Data, Khan Academy and YouTube, and is working on an online business system that will enable him to run a delivery business, on and off campus, and give him an income.
For both Samuel and Akinnusi, free public wifi has given them an opportunity to better themselves and increase their earnings. This then will have a knock-on effect on the people and businesses around them as they share their knowledge, and have more income to spend on the things they want and need – from textbooks to a night out every so often.
While many may consider the internet to be a frivolous source of entertainment, or a prime opportunity to make a profit, the benefits it brings to individuals and society as a whole mean we need to look past the obvious economic opportunity. For the opportunities the internet offers to truly be realised we need to look for ways to work together to bring internet access to many people. Or to use another analogy – rather than fighting for a larger slice of the piece, we need to collaborate to increase the size of the pie.
Government too, has recognised this potential. And although Nigeria’s National Broadband Plan has expired, and new targets are yet to be set, achieving 80% broadband penetration by 2020 is still a goal the country is working towards, and it is one that will take public-private partnerships to achieve.
There are more ways to make money off the internet than the obvious one of charging users to access it, and with a little creativity and willingness to innovate, we can use those ways to make the future brighter for everyone.