Tim Berners-Lee Is Right, Internet For All; But How To Get It?

Tim Berners-Lee is entirely correct in his call that getting the internet to the 4 billion people who currently don’t have it should be thought of as a roll out of infrastructure of similar importance to the roll out of basic sanitation, healthcare and education. Possibly, from an economic point of view, even more so as the growth that will come from it will lead to those other problems being easier to address. The big question is, of course, how should we shape public policy so as to bring about this desirable goal? Fortunately, the answer comes from the very same research that tells us it would be a good idea in the first place:

According to Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of World Wide Web, providing internet access to 4 billion people around the globe who do not have it, needs to be considered a priority of same urgency as better education, healthcare and clean water.

He said this upon publication of an index measuring social political and economic impact of being connected.

In a survey of 86 countries, his World Wide Web Foundation has found that while the use of internet has gone up globally, most people not connected live in developing world. He has urged the government of such countries to make efforts to bring down the costs of access.

We don’t actually have much information on the contribution of internet access (and most certainly not of mobile internet access, which is how those 4 billion are going to get any access at all) to growth rates. It’s all too new for us to have been able to collect and crunch the numbers (and given the time scales of academic journal publishing we’re not likely to see it for some time yet). Everyone’s working off the numbers from the introduction of basic mobile phone service in places without an extant landline network: and making a few good guesses about how much landline networks themselves contributed historically.

The effect is vast though. The basic finding has been that an increase of 10% of the population with a cellphone increases GDP growth by 0.5%. That’s not an increase in the rate of 0.5%, that’s another 0.5% on GDP each and every year. That is, by the standards of these things, a quite startling number. As best we can project we think that mobile internet will have a similar effect. Something large enough to seriously move the development dial at least. And that of course would lead on to there being more money around to buy those education, health care and sanitation desirables too.

So, we’d definitely like to have that expansion of the internet and the web access. No, not just because it will make the poor richer, desirable as that is, but because as they start producing more we’ll all become richer too: by exactly that extra amount that they produce for us to consume.

Fortunately, that original research that showed this large economic effect also studied (sorry, not the same paper, but it was the same researcher) what influences how many people have a mobile. And places with a competitive market in mobile provision had much higher penetration rates than places with a monopoly: whether that monopoly was government or market owned. And the more competitive the market, the larger the number of providers, the greater the market penetration even at the same level of general economic development.

The policy prescription is thus entirely clear. Before we do anything else we should be insisting that all of these developing countries make sure that they have a vibrant and free market in mobile airtime and handset provision. We can move on to ideas about subsidy and so on after we do that. For the very same set of research that tells us that expanding access is a good idea tells us that the market is the way to expand the access.



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