Freedom to connect – Why internet access can and should be a basic human right

“Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

– Former United States President, Barack Obama, 15 July 2015

It’s now been more than two years since Obama announced the ConnectHome program for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was launched to close the gap on digital access for low-income homes. Since then, in June 2016, the United Nations itself passed a non-binding resolution that would serve to condemns nations from taking away or disrupting their citizens’ internet access, with more than 70 states supporting the resolution.

In other words, the world seems to have reached a general consensus that the provision of internet access should be a fundamental human right. So why is this still a “non-binding” resolution? Much like the Paris agreement, states that tamper with internet access cannot be punished for it and there’s no way to make a country open up the channels for internet access. The reason for this is the cost and difficulties with the rolling out of infrastructure. But that excuse is about to be thrown out of the window…

With the rapid improvement of technology, the world is slowly starting to familiarize itself with wireless mesh networks, which makes the building of infrastructure far easier. Whereas in the past, you would have had to dig underground and install fixed lines to create access points, there is now a cheaper and far more effective solution. Building fiber optic lines is an incredibly expensive, time-consuming process and for a state to do so, entirely from its coffers, would be practically impossible, especially in informal settlements, such as those that exist in the developing world. Mesh networks would only require backhaul nodes, which are the intermediate links between the core network and the small subnetworks, to be constructed, while home routers that form part of the subnetwork can connect to the internet without requiring the construction of a dedicated access point. In other words, you have something equivalent to a cellular network tower that can handle high loads of traffic constructed in strategic points, while citizens only need mesh routers that can connect their devices to the internet.

In Africa, for example, mobile phones are incredibly popular and almost everybody owns one. It hasn’t been difficult for cellular service providers to penetrate the market and even some feature phones are now able to connect to Wi-Fi, while the cost of smartphones is decreasing at a rapid rate. Should governments distribute state-sponsored routers to unconnected households after building backhaul nodes, the decrease in what seemed an insurmountable cost would be astronomical. The cost of building fixed lines now becomes the cost of a router and the only infrastructure needed will be for the core network. Naturally, the cost of producing and distributing routers will still be sizeable if they are to be handed out to millions of people, but the cost of connecting the entire world to the internet (roughly four billion people have no fast, reliable access) looks very much like an attainable goal, especially with the aid of corporate sponsors or charitable entities. What’s more is that, with the infrastructure up and, with subnetworks existing everywhere, citizens will always be connected. Until today, an affordable always-on experience has been limited to the first world.

It will change everything.

Take something trivial, like eating, for example. Thirty years ago, if you were preparing a meal for your family, you would have to look up your grandmother’s recipe in your recipe book for whatever you wanted to make, you’d take a trip to the grocery store to buy ingredients and make the meal in an hour or so. Today, you can look up the recipe online, order the ingredients online (sometimes, with an online recipe, this option is even embedded) and, with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), there will soon be a time when we have our counters doing all the measuring and our smart stoves doing the cooking for us in a far shorter span of time. There will also likely come a point where our fridges and grocery cupboards are smart enough to automatically order new ingredients when it sees that we’re running out of milk and sugar, for example. Even when you didn’t feel like cooking, 30 years ago, you’d pick up the telephone and order in some takeaways, paying the delivery man in cash as he arrived. Today, there’s an app that automatically processes the payment and you can track the delivery. If you wanted to go to a restaurant, you’d go to some fancy new place in town that your friend told you about. Today, you google it and read a couple of reviews on Yelp. Without the internet, none of this would be possible. It enhances efficiency and broadens the marketplace, with a number of economic spinoffs, generally just making our lives a little bit easier.

And these advantages extend into just about every sphere of everyday life, from education to transport to news consumption. To such a great extent that it has become a necessity for a first world citizen.

Universal internet access opens billions of people to the online marketplace, it gives them access to information, which aids education, political opinion (and therefore democratic checks and balances), efficiency, and genuinely serves as a catalyst to oil the gears of the ideal society. There was a time where we said to ourselves that this is a great idea, but is incredibly impractical.

That time is gone and, as global citizens, we should be demanding that the UN creates a binding agreement that demands every person on the planet is being afforded a fundamental human right, the right to internet access.

 

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