Digital Regulation Platform

Access for All



Digital technologies are increasingly a central part of peoples’ lives, reshaping the way we live, work, and play and creating new opportunities for social and economic development. Businesses are, in turn, using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to fundamentally transform their processes, increase efficiency, develop new products, and enhance their customers’ experience. However, the shift towards an increasingly digital economy can widen the digital divide further between those able to benefit from the digital transformation and those that are not – either because they are in socially and economically disadvantaged sectors of the population or in areas without access to digital technologies, services, and opportunities.

Universal access (UA) to ICTs, including access to broadband networks, devices, and digital services, is a key component for everyone, everywhere to realize the full benefits deriving from digital transformation. It is also a fundamental lifeline during emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, providing access to basic commercial and public services, as well as to communicate with friends and family, telework, obtain health care and education. Accordingly, and consistent with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 9c and the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s targets (see Box 3.1), effective UA policies must enable access to affordable and good quality broadband services, and facilitate digital inclusion, including developing digital skills, access for women and people with disabilities, and availability of relevant content and applications (United Nations 2015, 9c)

Box 3.1. Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s 2025 targets

By 2025:

  1. All countries should have a funded national broadband plan or strategy or include broadband in their universal access and service (UAS) definition
  2. Entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries at less than 2 per cent of monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita
  3. Broadband Internet user penetration should reach: a) 75 per cent worldwide b) 65 per cent in developing countries c) 35 per cent in least developed countries
  4. 60 per cent of young people and adults should have achieved at least a minimum level of proficiency in sustainable digital skills
  5. 40 per cent of the world’s population should be using digital financial services
  6. Overcome unconnectedness of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) by 50 per cent, by sector
  7. Gender equality should be achieved across all targets

The uptake of the Internet has accelerated during the pandemic. In 2019, 4.1 billion people (or 54 per cent of the world’s population) were using the Internet. Since then the number of users has surged by 782 million to reach 4.9 billion people in 2021, or 63 per cent of the population. Between 2019 and 2021, Internet use in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region jumped by 23 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively. Over the same period, the number of Internet users in the least developed countries (LDCs) increased by 20 per cent and now accounts for 27 per cent of the population.

Even though 95 percent of the global population lived within range of a 3G or 4G mobile network in 2021, 2.9 billion people, or about 37 per cent of the world population, still do not use the internet, and 96 per cent of them live in the developing world.

Those who remain unconnected face multiple barriers, including a lack of access: some 390 million people are not even covered by a mobile broadband signal. (see Figure 3.1) (ITU 2021).

Figure 3.1. Individuals using the Internet

Source: ITU, 2021.

In almost half of the economies for which data could be obtained, that target set be the Broadband Commission has not yet been met. With only four years left to reach that target, prices remain prohibitive in many parts of the world. For mobile broadband, just under one-half of the economies for which ITU collected data in 2020 are still short of the target (84 out of 195), and for fixed broadband, it is more than one-half (56 per cent).

In the LDCs, while the median price for entry-level broadband has been declining, it remains beyond the means of the average consumer in all but 4 of the 43 LDCs for which data could be obtained. For fixed broadband, among the 33 countries for which data are available, only one has met the two per cent target. This supports the need to reassess policies and approaches currently being implemented to ensure UA objectives and meet these targets.

This chapter discusses key challenges and policies to achieve UA objectives within the context of digital transformation. The discussion focuses on three pillars:

In addition, this chapter discusses the need to incorporate monitoring and evaluation of UA policies to ensure data-driven decision-making and promptly identify and correct regulatory failures.[1]

Challenges to achieving universal access to broadband and digital services

Private investment plays a leading role in expanding access to broadband and digital services in developing countries, particularly leveraging mobile and other innovative wireless technologies. Regulators and policy-makers are responsible for implementing policies that promote investment and leverage new technologies and business models (see Box 3.2).

However, market forces alone are unable to commercially extend broadband and digital services to certain areas (e.g. remote rural areas) or groups (e.g. those with low income). To resolve this, narrowly tailored and targeted UA policies are required. This section summarizes the key challenges faced by policy-makers to promote UA. In developing countries, which face significant financial, socio-economic and educational constraints, national digital strategies must focus on a multisector, collaborative approach to tackle the UA challenges of access, affordability, skills, and take-up.

Box 3.2. Evolution of universal access and service policies

Universal access and service (UAS) policies traditionally focused on basic voice communications, particularly in more developed markets. But over the past decade, policies and strategies have expanded to include Internet access, and broadband in particular. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of countries that included broadband within their UAS policies more than doubled from 42 to 95. In 2020, this represented more than 60 per cent of all countries that reported having adopted a UAS policy. This trend is more pronounced in some developing regions, with about 85 per cent of Asia-Pacific countries now including broadband service in their definition of UAS. In addition, access to the Internet has been declared a right in several countries as well as by the United Nations (United Nations 2016).

Addressing the “digital divide”, defined as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels with regard to their opportunities to access information and communications technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities” (United Nations 2018, 2), requires tailored policies and strategies that can resolve the challenges shown in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1. Key universal access challenges facing developing countries

Challenge Description Key policies/actions
Connectivity Availability Limited sources of financing for broadband infrastructure deployment

Limited infrastructure availability throughout the broadband value chain

Update or establish efficient Universal Access and Service Funds (UASFs) to direct funds to uneconomic areas and programmes

Utilize public funding, development aid, or government initiatives and regulatory incentives to bring affordable broadband to underserved areas and population groups (e.g. connectivity obligations within spectrum licences; access to spectrum in return for infrastructure deployment or infrastructure sharing).

Implement contractual agreements (e.g. public-private partnerships (PPPs)) or mechanisms like “pay or play” to co-fund digital infrastructure deployment

Enable the use of innovative business models, alternative technologies (e.g., satellites, drones/balloons, Wi-Fi)

Promote cross-sectoral infrastructure deployment (e.g., transportation, oil and gas, electricity) and infrastructure sharing (passive and active)

Ensure fees and taxes on ICT service providers (including spectrum fees) are reasonable, and adequately balance the collection of government revenue and enabling development of digital services

Pricing Affordability Low purchasing power, coupled with high prices for services and end-user devices Targeted policies, subsidies, payment plans and sponsored data to increase affordability of digital service and end user devices for vulnerable populations

Promote free public Internet access points, such as digital access centres in schools, libraries, post offices, and public Wi-Fi networks;

Reduce import levies and other taxes applicable to end user devices

Inclusion Accessibility Ability to use digital services and technologies regardless of education, disability, age, and gender, among other factors Develop plans to stimulate demand with a focus on women and girls, and PWDs
Skills Lack of necessary digital skills and literacy Implement digital skills training initiatives and life-long learning programmes
Relevance Limited awareness of opportunities and benefits of ICTs

Limited availability of relevant content and services in local languages

Promote government adoption of ICTs and roll out of e-government services and applications (including e-health, e-education)

Develop policies to promote local digital content industries and digital content creation

Policies to promote universal access to broadband and digital services

UA policies cover not only connectivity, but also measures to ensure affordability and inclusion. The means by which governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and international bodies can effectively and collaboratively achieve these goals directly relate to variables such as population density; income; geographical features; political and economic characteristics; and available resources among others. Depending on features such as these, countries have followed different approaches to close access gaps. Moreover, in some cases such as Kenya, universal access is included in the country’s digital strategy (Republic of Kenya 2019). This section reviews UA policies and approaches being adopted around the world.

UA funding and financing policies: tackling accessibility challenges

Funding and financing mechanisms to achieve UA goals are the key challenge to ensure availability of broadband and digital services. Traditionally, government has in many cases used universal access and service funds (UASFs) as the funding mechanism of last resort to achieve UA goals. However, because of funding, operational, and other challenges, over the past several years alternative funding sources and strategies have emerged. Taken together, these approaches can be leveraged to ensure UA policies are better suited to offer connectivity, adequate infrastructure, affordability, digital skills, and inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups.

The main funding options are examined below:

Universal access and service funds

UASFs are funding mechanisms established by national governments to promote universal access to telecommunication services. They provide financial incentives for telecommunication service operators to provide service in locations that would not be commercially viable otherwise (UN ESCAP 2017, 10). Traditionally, governments allocated service-specific subsidies (e.g. for fixed telephony payphone services). However, more recently there has been a shift to allow service-neutral competition (e.g. fixed or mobile), as well as technology-neutral competition for UASF subsidies. Further, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) notes that UASFs are a valuable resource that can be used to fund programmes to assist PWDs in the Caribbean (Bleeker 2019), a view that is equally valid for other disadvantaged populations and in other regions. Similarly, in emergency situations, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, UASFs have been noted as a means to, in the short term, finance temporary network capacity relief, and to keep networks running and operational. (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2020).[2]

The shift in focus from voice services to broadband connectivity, promoting affordability and inclusion, has been crucial for countries. But it has required legal and regulatory changes to give UASFs the flexibility to support initiatives and programmes to implement broadband strategies (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015, 17).

A review of successful UASFs demonstrates that certain capacity requirements are necessary to attain UA goals. A UASF carries many of the same functions as a financial institution. It manages large capital assets, evaluates and defines projects for investment opportunities, and provides financing to implementing contractors, whose operations must be overseen and evaluated to ensure the UASF’s resources are well spent. Some of the necessary capacity requirements include:

However, UASFs have been subject to well-documented challenges. These include lack of transparency in resource assignment processes, low or non-disbursement of funds collected, fund collection and actual service funding/subsidy needs often are not linked, political interference, and lack of adequately trained staff, among others (GSMA 2013, 261-262). Going forward, effective operation of UASFs require identifying and resolving such problems if they arise (see Box 3.3).

Box 3.3. Examples of effective UASFs

Recent examples of successful UASFs include Costa Rica, Nigeria, and Pakistan. These countries have attained adequate fund management capacity, effectively utilizing UASF contributions and achieving ICT access objectives (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015, 9).

  • Costa Rica launched “CR Digital” in 2015. This national programme intended to connect the whole country to the Internet within two years. Although the goal was not achieved in that period, by 2018, 40 000 more families were online and 400 rural educational institutions had received Internet connection. Also, 95 per cent of households that have participated to date are female-headed (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2020).
  • Nigeria’s Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) has funded hundreds of new base stations, School Knowledge Centres and Community Resource Centres, fibre backbone network, inter-university connectivity, and programmes for e-health and e-accessibility (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015, 15)a
  • An autonomous Universal Service Fund was established in Pakistan in 2007, which is operated by an independent state company (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015, 9).b This fund focused on basic telecommunications and advanced services, including broadband. By 2013, the fund had financed Internet access to nearly 300 previously unserved towns and cities and about 1 100 high schools, colleges, and libraries.

Note: a. See Universal Service Provision Fund,; b. See Universal Service Fund,

Alternative approaches to funding broadband infrastructure

Additional funding and financing strategies to achieve UA goals are also being implemented around the world. These strategies aim to improve the economics or reduce the cost of projects aimed at deploying infrastructure to meet UA goals that may not be financially viable otherwise. For example, these may include fiscal measures such as enabling tax, tariff, import, and business regulation policies designed to reduce risks and financial burdens and provide incentives to ICT investors and financiers.

Supplementary direct government funding, or joint private and public funding, is also being directed to facilitate investment in broadband infrastructure and digital ecosystems. In the European Union, a series of funding and grant mechanisms have been deployed over the past few years to expand broadband network deployment. For example, the recently adopted Connecting Europe Facility (CEF2) Digital aims to support and catalyse investments in digital connectivity infrastructures of common interest during the 2021-2027 period. CEF2 Digital aims to support projects that address market failure and do not crowd out or overbuild other equivalent investments in the target area. As an EU-level public co-financing instrument, CEF2 Digital can attract private co-financing to address market failures, provided that the infrastructure targets areas in which no equivalent network, in terms of capabilities and/or functionalities, already exists (or is planned in the next 24 months) (European Commission 2019, 5).

Effective regulatory measures can also contribute to reducing network deployment costs. Such policies include promoting access to existing physical infrastructure, including cross-sectoral policies to access ducts, poles, or other passive infrastructure belonging to energy and other utilities. “Dig once” policies also aim to coordinate civil works between different utility companies to reduce cost of network build-out. Streamlining permitting requirements, such as rights-of-way, can also help reduce infrastructure deployment times and costs.

“Pay or play” policies are also being implemented as an alternative to finance UA goals. Under this approach, in countries such as Vanuatu, service providers may choose to “play” by meeting their cost in rolling out infrastructure to unserved or underserved areas or groups or, alternatively, non-playing providers must “pay” a UASF levy set by the regulatory authority. Accordingly, if a service provider decides to “play” under the UA project, then the regulator will not impose a levy for the relevant year, provided that the service provider meets its commitment. Relief funds are available in case the net costs exceed the UA levy threshold. Between 2015-2018, this pay or play framework has been successfully implemented in Vanuatu to achieve upgrades of mobile networks to offer data services and coverage of over 98 per cent (TRBR 2019, 7-8).

Policies to make broadband and digital services affordable

According to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development Target 2, by 2025 entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries at less than 2 per cent of monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2019b, 32). Despite significant advances over the past decade to promote competition market, in many countries prices remain above the Broadband Commission’s “1 for 2” affordability target threshold, that is, 1 GB of mobile data priced at or below 2 per cent monthly GNI per capita (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2019a, 34) In some countries, lower per capita income levels combined with low population densities may require public sector or joint public-private support to ensure high network deployment and device costs do not result in continued unaffordable Internet access.

The global average price of a mobile-data basket of at least 1.5 GB dropped from USD 20.4 in 2013 to USD 13.2 in 2019, equivalent to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -7 per cent – driven mostly by the 2013 to 2015 subperiod, followed by relative stability over the past four years. Over the past six years, there has been an explosion in the number of active mobile-data subscriptions, increasing from 27.4 to 83 per 100 inhabitants, or a CAGR of 20.3 per cent (ITU 2019).

In developed countries, the price of a mobile-data basket of 1.5 GB stood at USD 17 in 2019, which was above the global average of USD 14. However, as most people in developed countries will have a data-and-voice bundle, a data-only plan will not be very common. In developing countries, the nominal price remained just under the global average, at USD 13, whereas in the least developed countries the cost was only USD 8 for such a plan. Expressed in USD, the price of a mobile-data basket was the lowest in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region (USD 7), followed by Africa (USD 10), Asia and the Pacific (USD 11) and the Arab States (USD 14). The two most expensive regions were Europe at USD 16 and the Americas at USD 18 (ITU 2019).

Targeted policies, subsidies, and payment plans are often used to increase affordability of digital services and end-user devices for vulnerable populations. For example, national policies can be leveraged to foster local innovation and research and development for Internet-enabled devices such as handsets, as well as prioritize support through government investment agencies for ventures (between local and foreign firms or PPPs) that seek to offer low-cost devices to the market (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2019a, 19). Similarly, mobile operators are developing payment plans to facilitate acquisition of smart devices by lower-income consumers. In Kenya, Safaricom’s Maisha Ni Digital Campaign, launched in partnership with Google, seeks to provide access to entry-level smartphones (Neon devices) and close gender gaps – Kenyan women are 34 per cent less likely than men to use the mobile Internet. With devices offered at subsidized prices ranging from USD 32 to USD 55, Safaricom sold more than 600,000 Neon smartphones in 2019, making the devices the most popular and affordable smartphone in its retail shops across the country (Safaricom 2019a; Safaricom 2019b; GSMA 2020).

Box 3.4. Different approaches to public Wi-Fi network deployment

Public Wi-Fi allows people to use much more data at little or no extra cost in public spaces, without significant revenue loss for retail operators. This has been implemented using different institutional and funding approaches by governments and cooperative platforms around the world (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2019a, 26).

General budget funding: Governments around the world – from national to local – are supporting free public Wi-Fi deployments. In the EU, the WIFI4EU programme has awarded EUR 15 000 subsidies to 6 000 municipalities to cover the capital expenditure of providing free public Wi-Fi.a In the Philippines, the government launched a programme to provide free public Wi-Fi to all citizens in all public places, including parks, plazas, libraries, barangay (village) centres, national and local government offices, public basic education institutions, state universities and colleges, public hospitals, health centres and rural health units, public airports and seaports, and public transport terminals. Legislation passed in 2017 (Republic Act No. 10929) tasks the Department of ICT (DICT) with implementation of the programme and, as of April 2020, 3,735 sites were operational in the Free Public Wi-Fi for All programme.

UASF financing: In some countries UASFs are earmarked to deploy public Wi-Fi networks. In Trinidad and Tobago, public funds are made available via UASF to subsidize deployment of public Wi-Fi networks and service fees (TATT 2016, 12) This initiative had limited success as it faced coordination challenges and limited buy-in from industry. In 2020, the government relaunched the initiative to resolve these challenges.

Sponsored data programmes: Innovative business models to overcome affordability challenges are also being implemented to support deployment of public Wi-Fi networks. In Kenya and Rwanda, a Kenyan start-up, BRCK, successfully launched Moja WiFi, which offers free service to end-users and is funded via sponsorships and advertising. Users “pay” with their time, attention, or engagement rather than with money. Moja WiFi has deployed 1 300 hotspots in rural and urban areas and provides free Internet access to about 2 million users (Loyce Chloe 2020).

Note: WiFi4EU – Free Wi-Fi for Europeans,

Promoting public Internet access points, where Internet access is provided free of charge or at low cost, is also a policy pursued by many countries to offer affordable service for some of the most vulnerable individuals or groups. These include digital access centres in schools, libraries, post offices, and public Wi-Fi networks that ensure privacy and security. Designing policies for sustainable community telecentres, offering free or low-cost use of computers, broadband connections, e-services, and digital skills training expand broadband and target affordability challenges (see Box 3.4).

Another key incentivizing policy lever to foster UA access to broadband and digital service and devices is decreased taxes and sector-specific fees. Governments must balance the need to raise revenue with the negative impact of higher fees and taxes, that is, decreased broadband adoption and usage, on the economy as a whole and on the process of digital transformation. For instance, in 2017 Colombia opted to remove value-added tax (VAT) on low-cost handsets and laptops and to exempt low-cost plans and lower-income consumers from VAT increases. As a result of these targeted policies, mobile phone sales increased in 2017, even for devices that exceeded the VAT exemption for low-cost devices. Some device manufacturers repriced their devices to move from just-above the VAT threshold to just-below, thereby providing Colombians with a wider range of devices at more affordable prices (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2020b).

Policies to promote inclusion

Cross-sectoral policies: digital skills and literacy

UA policies have evolved to extend beyond the ICT sector itself, more broadly including cross-sectoral approaches that can leverage ICT benefits across multiple economic segments. The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development highlights the idea of “meaningful universal connectivity”, encompassing broadband adoption that is “not just available, accessible, relevant and affordable, but that is also safe, trusted, empowering users and leading to positive impact” (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2019a, ix). The ideas of empowering users leading to positive impact is arguably the ultimate goal of cross-sectoral policies intended to improve and expand the use of ICTs in order to have a broader effect.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this cross-sectoral thinking is the inclusion of digital skills in UA policies and plans. The ITU has identified the benefits of building digital skills and applying them in both work and personal aspects of individuals’ lives (ITU 2018, 5):

Building on the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s view that digital skills exist on a spectrum, the ITU has defined basic, intermediate, and advanced skills (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2017a, 4; ITU 2018, 5-7). These definitions are useful as reference points for policy-makers determining the digital skills and cross-sectoral components of UA plans. In brief:

The use of a cross-sectoral component such as digital skill-building creates beneficial ripple effects across entire economies, expanding economic opportunities and strengthening communications regardless of the industrial sector, geographic location, or population group. The economy-wide benefits of digital skills development justify a focus on their incorporation into educational settings. These efforts, which sometimes fall under the umbrella of an educational policy or joint education and communications initiative, are crucial to train students at an early age how to leverage the capabilities of broadband and technology. The European Commission has adopted a Digital Education Action Plan, in which school connectivity is only the first of 11 action items (European Commission 2018). The action items are organized in line with three priorities, which include “making better use of technology for teaching and learning,” and “developing relevant digital competences and skills for the digital transformation”. The digital skills-focused priority includes action items addressing the inclusion of coding in all European school curricula as well as increasing awareness at all levels (parent, teacher, student) of online safety, cybersecurity, and media literacy.

Such education and training is not limited to the primary or secondary school settings. The intermediate and advanced skills identified above are candidates for more specialized vocational and professional development training settings. In the Netherlands, a “Digital Technology Pact” noted a principle of implementing technology education broadly, including not only primary and secondary education, but also vocational education, higher education, and professional development (National Technology Pact 2016). The pact includes an emphasis on cooperation between academia and the business sector in an effort to strengthen the technological skill of Dutch workers. Continued digital skills training is also presented in various countries in the form of boot camps and other focused skills-building environments for professionals.

Beyond access to ICTs, ensuring that their potential benefits can be leveraged across multiple sectors magnifies their impact and should be a key component of a modern UA policy or programme and may be considered in cooperation with ministries or government agencies.

Promoting local content and content industries

Another key consideration of modern UA policies is driving demand for connectivity through the promotion of relevant content. Beyond providing the connection for users to access content, a forward-looking UA policy should also consider the need to bring the newly connected online and make it relevant for them to take advantage of the connection.

While the Internet hosts a tremendous amount of public and private content, connectivity demand is driven by the availability of content that is relevant to users. This includes ensuring that content is available in relevant languages and is tailored to local needs and interests. From its earliest stages, the Broadband Commission has called for the availability of local content. In its October 2011 “Broadband Challenge” (Broadband Commission for Digital Development 2011, 2), the commission called on governments and civil society to “stimulate local content production as well as the development of local language services and applications for an inclusive digital world”. In considering demand generation through local content, a 2011 Intel white paper on the use of USAF resources to broadband programmes notes that software and applications in local languages make education, financial services, health care, e-government, and other services more accessible (Intel 2011, 2).

The role of a UA policy in this context is to support efforts that enable local content creation. In one recent example of such an approach, Nigeria’s 2020-2025 National Broadband Plan includes efforts to bring more Nigerian businesses online through free .ng domain name registrations for two years and through multiple digital literacy and awareness approaches intended to spur demand (Government of Nigeria 2020, 61). Both types of efforts foster increased local content availability. The free domain name registration initiative is intended to promote local content development as well as job creation and expanded online business opportunities for Nigerian companies through a reduction in the cost of establishing a new online business or online presence. Notably, the policy does not direct funds to particular businesses or industries, but rather seeks to provide a universal benefit to all Nigerian businesses seeking to register a domain name, allowing them to direct their resources toward other aspects of developing their business. Responsibility for implementation of such initiatives is spread among various government agencies, with Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy participation included in all of the digital literacy activities, while the domain name registration programme is assigned to Nigeria’s Internet Registry Association, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), and the Corporate Affairs Commission. As is seen in this case, approaches to expanding digital literacy and content creation involve a range of stakeholders.

The Philippines includes a similar component in its National Broadband Plan, stating that the government will support the development of local content and applications to drive broadband demand (Department of Information and Communications Technology 2017, 44). Specifically, the plan includes the following measures:

Similarly, Nigeria’s digital literacy-related efforts also include development of educational, vocational, and entrepreneurial content in local languages. Nigeria’s plan also envisions development and implementation of an enhanced national digital virtual e-library that provides a range of digital resources and includes translation of foreign-language material to local languages.

Additional approaches to local content development can include efforts to increase the online availability of government services and information. As a major producer of information that is both locally relevant and presented in the local language, national, state, and local governments are ideally suited to play a role in the implementation of UA policies that create new or expanded online resources that provide useful information to citizens.

Overall, UA policies should consider the potential benefit of increased availability of local content in terms of increasing Internet usage. In crafting goals or action items intended to increase the availability of local content, policy-makers should consider the roles of both the private and the public sector in order to maximize the impact of such efforts.

Gender inclusion and accessibility policies

Recognizing that lack of Internet access or usage is not uniform across populations, policy-makers should consider how UA policies and UASFs can be employed to particularly assist those groups with comparatively low levels of access and usage. In particular, research has identified a need to improve connectivity and digital services access for women and for PWDs.

Based on 2019 ITU estimates, there was a 17 per cent difference in Internet penetration between men and women worldwide, although the number varies across regions and income levels (ITU 2019, 3). Notably, developing countries have a difference of 22.8 per cent, while LDCs have a gender gap of nearly 43 per cent. Perhaps of greatest concern is that the gender gap has grown over the past few years. ITU data indicates that the gender gap has increased in the Asia-Pacific, Arab States, and African regions, and also in the developing country and LDC groups between 2013 and 2019.

The OECD notes that the gender gap, sometimes known as the digital gender divide, has multiple root causes, including barriers to access, affordability, education, and lack of technology literacy (OECD 2018, 22). While these aspects are relevant to the digital divide across groups, the OECD also notes the relevance of gender biases and socio-cultural norms leading to gender-based digital exclusion. These can include comparatively higher domestic work and childcare obligations and negative social perceptions of Internet use by women and girls.

Organizations including the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and the World Wide Web Foundation have proposed policy approaches to close the gender gap. Among the four recommendations presented by the Broadband Commission’s Working Group on the Digital Gender Divide was the integration of a gender perspective in strategies, policies, plans, and budgets (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2017b). This recommendation grows from the recognition that gender-related policies, strategies, and action plans often fail to acknowledge the importance of ICTs and broadband as enabling tools, while broadband strategies, policies, and plans often fail to include a gender dimension. To that end, the working group suggested three primary actions to address this disconnect:

Such approaches are particularly salient for the development or revision of UA policies, increasing the likelihood of addressing the gender gap alongside improving overall connectivity and access.

The World Wide Web Foundation has also identified USAFs as an “untapped resource” for addressing the gender digital divide (Thakur and Potter 2018). To that end, the organization has proposed four key recommendations to improve the efficiency and efficacy of USAFs specifically to address the gender gap:

  1. Invest at least 50 per cent of funds in projects targeting women’s Internet access and use.
  2. Make project design and implementation more gender-responsive.
  3. Increase transparency of fund financing, disbursements, and operations.
  4. Improve diversity in USAF governance and increase awareness of gender issues within the USAF.

A recent example of this approach is Colombia’s 2018-2022 ICT plan, which includes a section on using ICTs as a tool for closing the gender gap (MinTIC 2018, 72). The plan underscores the importance of improving both women’s access to and adoption of ICTs, and also notes the need to address the socio-cultural norms and beliefs that discourage women from using ICTs or pursuing ICT-related careers. Colombia’s plan continues by highlighting two programmes intended to increase women’s use of ICTs and related tools.

In addition to the gender gap, there are also access disparities that affect PWDs. While ICTs can play a significant role in overcoming barriers faced by PWDs in terms of participating actively in society, technological progress does not guarantee equal access to new and improved technologies.

Among various action items that more broadly suggest operational improvements to UASFs, ECLAC proposes several action items to close access gaps for PWDs. These include:

It is perhaps noteworthy that there is significant overlap between the World Wide Web Foundation’s recommendations for addressing the gender gap and ECLAC’s recommendations to improve access for PWDs. These may point to common approaches to addressing access gaps among other marginalized populations.

Monitoring and evaluation of impact of universal access policies

In addition to considering how UA policies have evolved and the key areas of focus for modern plans, it is also important to be able to evaluate whether a policy or individual project has met its intended goals. This consideration of accountability should be a foundational component of UA approaches, and relies both on clear, measurable objectives and on the ability to measure progress against them. In a sense, this equates UA policies and plans with many other government policies or programmes, for which policy-makers need to design and implement mechanisms for monitoring effects. In addition to transparently disbursing funds in support of UASF targeted projects, it is also particularly important to evaluate whether such spending is an effective and efficient use of collected funds.

As such, two approaches to monitoring and evaluating the impact of UA policies should be considered: (i) evaluation of the overall policy, and (ii) evaluation of individual UASF-supported projects. In both cases, the establishment of clear goals and/or milestones will lay the groundwork for later impact evaluation.

For UA policies, governments should set specific, attainable goals for the key aspects of the policy. This could include, for example, ensuring Internet connectivity in a minimum number of locations or to a minimum percentage of the population, ensuring access to a certain level of connectivity without exceeding a certain proportion of per capita national income, and ensuring a minimum level of service quality. The inclusion of specific goals or milestones allows a review of the efforts undertaken as a result of the policy. For example, if a UA policy includes a goal of increasing the percentage of the population with access to a 10 Mbit/s Internet connection to at least 98 per cent within five years, a subsequent review should be able to evaluate whether that goal was met. If resources permit, an interim or mid-term assessment of the policy’s impact is a particularly useful tool, allowing for course corrections before the target date is reached.

Similarly, UASF-funded projects should be designed to have specific implementation milestones and goals that must be met, and clear criteria against which success can be measured. Traditional voice service-focused UASF-supported projects have often been structured such that payment is disbursed upon successful, timely completion of project milestones, providing recipients with an incentive to meet the stated implementation timeline and goals. This approach is equally applicable to UASF-supported projects for expanding access to the Internet and digital services more broadly. Funding recipients should be able to substantiate that they have met goals that may include not only connectivity, but adoption, price levels, variety of services available, or services available to disadvantaged populations.

In line with meeting specific milestones and timelines, UASF-funded projects should include reporting requirements that may incorporate a progress assessment, analysis of any unexpected circumstances, financial statements, and any other relevant analysis, particularly in cases of deviation from initial project plans. As above, such requirements may not markedly differ from reporting requirements for a telephony-focused project but should be tailored to the particular project and its goals. Thus, additional reporting requirements could include, for example, average available broadband speeds, access to particular digital services, or measures to ensure access for PWDs. The goals of reporting requirements should be to enable all stakeholders to assess project progress or success, and also to serve as a motivation for the funding recipient to commit appropriate resources to meet the project goals.

UA policy and project monitoring is a key policy element for increasing the likelihood of success. While the concept dates back to the earliest UA policy approaches, it can and should be adapted to fit modern UA and digital service needs.

Key findings

Considering the issues reviewed in the preceding sections, the following key findings may be informative for policy-makers and other stakeholders.

Focus on reliable, affordable broadband and devices. As policy-makers develop or revise UA policies, the availability of reliable, affordable broadband is increasingly taking a central role. This connectivity is comprised of, and enabled by, international and backbone connections, backhaul connectivity, and last mile connections. This foundation enables connectivity that, in turn, promotes broader socio-economic development. Affordability is a core issue, necessitating innovative approaches and business models, particularly for access to devices.

Improve UASF effectiveness. The past and current challenges faced by UASFs and the populations intended to benefit from their projects indicate a need to review and, if necessary, reform the scope, processes, and effectiveness of such funds. These challenges need to be resolved to make UASFs more efficient and better positioned to be able to deliver universal connectivity.

Diversified funding sources and alternative approaches. Policy-makers and stakeholders are considering a wide range of traditional and alternative approaches to funding projects to better reach UA goals. As discussed, this can include fiscal measures and regulations intended to reduce risk, UASFs and new funding approaches that leverage private funding or expertise, or which combine public and private sources, as well as regulatory streamlining.

Skills development enables and drives broadband adoption. Connectivity alone is not enough to drive wider broadband adoption. Rather, UA plans are expanding to include components intended to develop the digital skills that enable users to take advantage of connectivity and to effectively work in an increasingly digital economy.

Inclusion and accessibility are increasingly built into UA plans. Beyond connectivity and broad socio-economic goals, UA plans are increasingly incorporating measures to ensure that connectivity and its benefits reach populations that have traditionally been excluded, such as women and PWDs.

Monitoring and evaluation continue to play important roles. UA policy impacts are dependent on effective and efficient implementation. Thus, UA policies continue to require structured monitoring and evaluation mechanisms intended to ensure that policy, programme, and investment goals are met.

Consideration of these key findings may help policy-makers and stakeholders consider the questions and issues that will inform their UA policy evaluation and development.


  1. For more detailed examination of the topics covered in this chapter, see relevant articles in this thematic section.
  2. COVID-19 Crisis: Broadband Commission Agenda for Action for Faster and Better Recovery, available here.


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Last updated on: 19.01.2022
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