The spread of coronavirus pandemic, which has halted business activity and led to lockdowns globally has shown that more than ever the internet is a basic right. Billions of people worldwide are relying on the internet to connect with their family, loved ones, do business, access healthcare information and more. “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,” Eleanor Sarpong, the Deputy Director at the Alliance for Affordable Internet, says. Her argument is based on the fact that social distancing measures have made people shift to online learning, working from home, and enabled proliferation of live streamed religious services — even weddings and funerals. “But digital inequality deprives billions of people these critical connections,” she notes. The coronavirus crisis has starkly exposed the shocking digital divide that persists around the world. Only 54 per cent 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. The Alliance for Affordable Internet together with the Web Foundation last week made the case for internet access. The two organisations published a policy document last week, highlighting steps that governments can take to ease access to the Internet. They say the pandemic has exposed the shocking inequalities in internet access and affordability across the globe. “Without access to reliable connectivity and devices, billions of people risk being further cut off from vital information on health and safety, online learning, and the opportunity to voice their views and engage in commerce,” the document reads in part. What to do The organisations suggest that governments must remove all barriers that limit access to the internet like consumer taxes and internet shutdowns. They should also “dedicate available resources to expanding access and addressing device shortages.” Governments have particularly been called to loosen permitting rules to speed up roll out of critical infrastructure (such as fibre networks) to unserved areas. The policy document also calls for expansion of services to underserved or unserved communities. This can be done by making it easier for smaller companies to enter the market and alternative models like community networks to thrive. Josephine Nyiranzeyimana, the Chief Information Officer at the Rwanda Information Society Authority (RISA), says access to the Internet should be considered like utility. “More efforts and innovative approaches to increase Internet access and to improve uptake are needed,” she said of the report. “Good quality and affordable Internet should be available and accessible to everyone,” she added. Unfortunately, theres been a lot of concerns and criticisms that have been raised by different consumers about poor quality internet during the Covid-19 period. Some have criticised the move by the government of Rwanda to halt rollout of internet infrastructure across the country. However, it’s not just governments, companies should play a critical role by providing affordable and accessible connectivity options and supporting existing customers. Yet, in Rwanda, where nearly 6 million people access internet (PDF), mobile network operators have been blamed for providing poor internet connectivity during the pandemic.