Now more than ever, internet access is a lifeline — not a luxury. But it is a lifeline that over 3.5 billion people cannot access.

For those fortunate enough to have meaningful connectivity, the internet provides a crucial link to information that helps us keep our families healthy and safe during this global health crisis.

With social distancing measures the new norm across the globe, we are living our lives online. From online learning to working from home, live streamed religious services — even weddings and funerals — the web connects us to loved ones in this time of physical isolation.

But digital inequality deprives billions of people these critical connections. The coronavirus crisis has starkly exposed the shocking digital divide that persists around the world. Only 54% of the global population is connected today, with people in poorer regions far less likely to be online, along with women, elderly people and those living in remote and rural areas.

Among those who are online, many are only connected via their place of work, school or in public access spaces such as libraries and cafes — meaning the closures of these public spaces will push even more people offline.

This inequality has real life consequences. For junior high school teacher Nasiru Saliah in Tunga, Ghana, the digital divide leaves her feeling helpless as her students — without computers, smartphones, internet access and in some cases without electricity — fall behind in their education.

For Anisha Pandit, a mother of two and a teacher in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, patchy connectivity following an internet shutdown has cut her off from the resources she needs to teach.

In South Africa, our regional coordinator for Africa, Onica Makwakwa has seen the crisis push access further out of reach for many of the country’s citizens: “Data is already expensive for over 80% of South Africans and the lockdown of this pandemic has made it worse. This, coupled with erratic supply of electricity and lost earnings makes things unbearable.”

This pandemic has also highlighted that wealthy countries too are afflicted by digital deprivation. In New York City, nearly a third of households lack a home broadband subscription. In Spain, 19% don’t have a computer. Research from Pew suggests that four in ten low-income households in the US do not have broadband access.

We’re not only facing a global health pandemic. We also have a catastrophic digital divide threatening to deepen offline inequalities.

But in this element of the crisis we are not fighting an invisible enemy. Governments, companies, multilateral institutions and civil society can work together to take urgent actions to bring as many people online as possible during this global emergency.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the Web Foundation have published a policy brief (PDF) recommending steps to urgently get more people online and make progress towards universal internet access.
Governments must immediately implement policies to ensure everyone can connect to the internet.

During this crisis, governments should commit to providing all necessary support to keep citizens connected. Initiatives such as national connectivity pledges and solidarity plans can help secure connectivity in emergency situations. In addition, governments can make access more affordable by removing consumer facing taxes on data and internet services.
Uninterrupted access is critical. Any internet shutdowns must end immediately.

Our full set of recommendations also includes calls for governments to dedicate available funds and resources to address urgent access gaps, take swift regulatory action so that critical internet infrastructure can be built quickly, and to protect network infrastructure from vandalism.
Companies must provide affordable and accessible connectivity options.

Access to the internet is life changing — especially in times of crisis. Companies must take urgent action to make sure as many people as possible can connect to this lifeline. By relaxing policies on late fees and providing discounted data or special affordable packages for low income groups, companies can expand connectivity and improve lives.

As more people turn to online services during this unprecedented time, companies can maintain high quality across the board by voluntarily downgrading high-bandwidth streaming services, where appropriate.

To eliminate barriers and make sure everyone can access essential information, companies should zero-rate public service websites and services, so people accessing these sites will not have to run down their data.

Governments, companies and multilateral institutions should form Public-Private Partnerships to speed up service delivery
Public-Private Partnerships are critical to speed up delivery of affordable access and secure reliable connectivity to underserved and unserved areas and populations. By joining forces and sharing resources, public and private sector players can expand connectivity. These funds can provide free or subsidized devices to public institutions, low income households, and women, rural and remote populations, and other marginalized groups. The partnerships can include governments, multilateral banks, funding institutions, and international and regional agencies.

Civil Society Organisations should also serve as a foundation for community support for citizens
Civil society organisations and individuals have an important role to play to support the efforts of governments and companies. Collectively, we can pursue solidarity actions to increase access and connectivity options. Individuals can share their mobile data plans and mobile credit with others or donate spare internet enabled devices to families who do not have one, where possible.

Civil society must speak up for those who lack access to draw the attention of governments and the private sector to the devastating impact of the digital divide. Those of us who are online can use the platform to speak out for those who aren’t — and put pressure on governments and companies to take action.

The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified deep existing inequalities in affordable and meaningful connectivity. Internet access is a public good and a basic human right that can reduce the sense of isolation many face during this period of confinement. It has never been more important that we ensure everyone can connect.