Achieving universal, affordable internet access is a key social and economic priority for countries around the world. The 193 member states of the United Nations agreed to work toward achieving this target by 2020 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, and most countries have policies in place to ensure that internet access and use is a reality for all. To this end, many countries have established communal funds dedicated to expanding connectivity opportunities to unserved and underserved communities. These funds, known as Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs), are typically financed through mandatory contributions by mobile network operators and other telecommunications providers.
Making effective use of these funds is a critical step on the path to realising our shared goal of access for all. We are on track to reach 50% internet penetration in 2018 — an exciting milestone, to be sure, but one that also highlights the distance we have to go. Connecting the last four billion will not happen through market forces alone; it will require targeted efforts aimed at connecting those least likely to be connected, including those in poor, rural and hard to-reach communities. Above all, it will require efforts particularly targeted at connecting women, who comprise the majority of those offline today.
And yet, USAFs remain, for the most part, an untapped resource for working toward these aims. For this research, we set out to find out more about the use of USAFs in Africa — the region with the lowest rate of internet penetration (22%) and the widest digital gender gap (25%). How many of Africa’s 54 countries have operational USAFs, if they have one at all? Are USAF funds being used to close the digital divide and, specifically, the gender digital divide? What can governments and fund operators do to improve the impact of USAF-funded initiatives and accelerate efforts to connect women and close the digital divide?
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