Group backed by internet giants seeks cheaper access for the poor | Bangkok Post: tech

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Group backed by internet giants seeks cheaper access for the poor

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Accessing the internet in the developing world is unnecessarily expensive, partly due to government policies that hinder competition and should be scrapped, a new alliance backed by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft said on Monday. 

The Alliance for Affordable Internet, which launched in Nigeria's capital, said it will push for an "open, competitive and innovative broadband market" to boost access, especially in Africa, where only 16% of the population is online.

Other members of the alliance include the British and US development agencies, as well as Facebook and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Britain's Tim Berners-Lee.

"There is simply no good reason for the digital divide to continue," Berners-Lee said in a statement, arguing that the infrastructure and technology needed to fully connect poorer countries was increasingly in place.

"The real bottleneck now is anti-competitive policies and regulations that keep prices unaffordable. The alliance is about removing that barrier."

The initiative's executive director, Sonia Jorge, said that Ethiopia's telecommunications policy "is an example of exactly what you don't want to see".

The state operator, Ethio Telecom, holds a near monopoly as a broadband service provider and the cost of connection is among the highest in the world when compared to monthly income, according to the US watchdog Freedom House. Despite its roughly 90 million people, Ethiopia had only 27,000 broadband subscriptions in 2011. Significant price reductions were announced last year in an effort to boost access, however.

The alliance said its goal is to reduce the cost of access to below 5% of monthly income worldwide.

In developed countries, people last year spent on average 1.7% of monthly income for broadband while in the developing world the figure was 30.1%, according to the group.

Prices have gone down in several areas, in part due to infrastructure improvements, including under-sea cables.

Following its Monday launch in Nigeria, the group will begin working in four countries, campaigning for liberal, open-market policies where private firms freely compete to provide lower cost broadband services for as many people as possible.

"It is important that the playing field is level," Jorge said.

In some African countries, despite a flurry of new players in the market offering a range of services, many feel "that prices haven't really changed that much", Jorge said, adding the competition policies may need to be refined so that people actually "reap the benefit".

Meanwhile, the United Nations said on Monday that 2.7 billion people _ 40% of the world's population _ will be connected to the internet by the end of the year.

Another 250 million people came online last year, but 4.4 billion people remain unconnected, said the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Ninety per cent of those not online live in developing countries. The ITU also said there would be 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions _ almost as many as there are people on the planet _ by the end of the year. South Korea leads the world in information and communication technology (ICT) development for the third consecutive year, followed closely by Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway, the ITU said in its annual report. The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Hong Kong (China) also rank high, while Britain nudged into the top 10 from 11th position last year, the report said.The ITU's annual ICT Development Index ranks 157 countries according to their level of ICT access, use and skills. The report also noted that "mobile broadband is now more affordable than fixed broadband".

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