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Mozilla and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for a joint project that will promote rural connectivity in the Africa region. “The project, pegged to the usage of spectrum policy, regulations and practices, is designed to ensure affordable access to communication across the continent,” said ATU Secretary-General John OMO. “Figuring out how to make spectrum accessible, particularly in rural areas, is critical to bringing people online throughout the African continent,” said Mitchell Baker, CEO of Mozilla, “I’m committed to Mozilla making alliances to address this challenge.”

While half the world is now connected to the internet, the existing policy, regulatory, financial, and technical models are not fit for purpose to connect the poorer and more sparsely populated rural areas. More needs to be done to achieve the United Nations’ universal access goals by 2030. Clear policy and regulatory interventions that can support innovation, and new business models to speed up progress, are urgently required.

Access to the internet should not be a luxury, but a global public resource that is open and accessible to all. This is particularly true during a global public health crisis, as it underpins the deployment of digital healthcare solutions for detecting COVID-19.

Rural connectivity in the African region presents a unique set of challenges. More than 60% of Africa’s populations live in rural areas, but they lack resources and infrastructures needed to connect them. Potential users are often spread out, making it difficult to support the traditional business case for investments necessary to establish broadband infrastructure.

There are many factors that contribute to this digital divide, but one of the biggest challenges is making wireless spectrum available to low-cost operators, who are prepared to deploy new business models for rural access.

Spectrum licenses are bets, in the form of 10-15 year commitments, for national coverage for mobile operators. As the demand for wireless spectrum continues to increase beyond its administrative availability, policy-makers and regulators have increasingly turned to spectrum auctions to assign a limited number of licenses.

However, spectrum auctions act as a barrier to competition, creating financial obstacles for innovative, smaller service providers who could bring new technology and business models to rural areas. In addition, the high fees associated with these auctions are a disincentive to larger mobile operators to roll out services in rural areas, resulting in the dramatically under-utilised spectrum.

To unlock innovation and investment, we must develop policy and regulatory instruments to address access to spectrum in rural areas. Mozilla has partnered with the ATU to facilitate a dialogue among regulators, policy-makers, and other stakeholders, to explore ways to unlock the potential of the unused spectrum. Mozilla and the ATU will develop recommendations based on these dialogues and good practice. The recommendations will be presented at the 2021 Annual ATU Administrative Council meeting.

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