An integrated Human Right approach to increase Internet access in rural areas : Focus Tunisia


29 October, 2016

This article was written by 2016 IGMENA training hosted by Diplo online course fellow Mrs. Wafa Dahmani

What are the challenges to increasing Internet access in Tunisia, especially in rural areas? Please specify which groups or locations you are targeting, and what policies should be changed or implemented to increase access to the digital economy for these groups. What changes would you make to these policies, and why?
Official statistics published by the Tunisian national regulator (INTT) [1] in April 2016 indicate that there are 516,061 fixed data subscriptions and 7,280,197 mobile data subscriptions, with a penetration rate of 16.02% for fixed data and 64.5% for mobile data. More than 7 million Tunisians are enjoying free access to the internet; most Tunisians are using 3G/4G connection with a bandwidth capacity of 180 Gb/s. However, about 40% of the population are not connected to Internet. Connecting 100% of the Tunisians and addressing the digital divide is still a challenging issue in Tunisia. The focus today is on rural areas and households below the average income.
The main dimensions for increasing connectivity in Tunisia are expanding infrastructure, ensuring affordability, increasing usability, and setting innovative policies.
Expanding infrastructure:
There's a need for more investment and public-private cooperation to strengthen national infrastructure backbone, in particular in rural areas. Pioneering the National Optical Fiber Network would bring needed telecommunications service to rural areas and underserved populations. Expanding optical fiber today is hindered by the actual telecommunication code, which gives exclusivity to the telecom operators to commercialize optical fibers, despite an important existing IRU infrastructure across the country belonging to the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas and the National Society of Tunisian Railways. In addition, there isn’t enough money to support this network, whereas providing funding is compulsory.

The promotion and the continued deployment of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) is another identified priority in order to stimulate further development of a local ecosystem and alleviate access costs. Currently we have Two IXPs, TunIXP-Tunis and TunIXP-Enfidha, and traffic exchanged within the IXP is about 53Gbs, but I think that we need more IXPs to be deployed in other regions of the country and try to bring more peers and critical infrastructure such as banks and service providers and data centers.
I want also to highlight that IPv6 transition, with the exhaustion of IPv4 and the emerging new services, is becoming one of the priorities, and Tunisia should take further steps by imposing IPv6 in the new services (e.g. 4G...).The government, for instance, should trigger this deployment process. It is also important to implement new data compression and caching techniques that would make telecommunications networks operate more efficiently. This can be possible by deploying open source hardware, or making more efficient use of spectrum.
Tunisia has set an ambitious national strategic plan called "Digital Tunisia 2018" [2], where deploying the infrastructure is central to the major national projects (e-education, e-health, deploying national Cloud, etc.) and many of the points detailed above are considered.
Ensuring affordability:
Internet access costs are considered one of the biggest barriers to bringing users online. Reducing costs is vital to promoting access. As I mentioned below IXPs are key infrastructure to bring down access cost but it’s not the only resolution. According to a Deloitte study, “Income levels are key barrier to internet access, and internet penetration is often the lowest in countries with the lowest GDP per capita” [3]. Households below the average income will find difficulties to purchase devices and gain access to online services. Unless these individuals can utilize free or cheap products, they won’t be able to access to the internet. Users must cover the device, the connection fees, the call costs, the text messaging expenses, and the broadband access.
Cellphones and smartphones are expensive, which is why Internet access is out of reach for many individuals, even for people with higher incomes. Reducing telecommunication taxes and keeping connectivity taxes and licenses fees affordable would reduce barriers for users to access to the internet and enable operators and service providers to make the necessary investment when their structural cost is lower. A Telecom Advisory Services study by Raul Katz, Ernesto Flores-Roux, and Judith Mariscal finds that “Brazil has a 43.3 percent tax on mobile services that if reduced by one percentage point, could raise the number of subscribers between 520,000 and 1,050,000. The South Africa tax is 14.9 percent and a cut in it by one point would increase the subscribers between 310,000 and 620,000 people” [4]. The Tunisian government needs connectivity policies that lower the cost of access.
Increasing usability:
Deploying infrastructure and providing affordable access is the only first step to connect the unconnected people in Tunisia. We should furthermore stimulate and encourage local content that attracts local users, and promote multilingualism and IDNs to enable people who don’t speak English. Improving digital literacy would improve internet access by developing programs to train people on internet use. Such action could be led by the Ministry of Education. The example of India is interesting in this context: in fact, “only around 12 percent of Indians speak English. People are most likely to use Internet when information is delivered in local languages, through multilingualism, or via image-based graphics. Reaching underserved populations or people who live in rural areas especially benefits from these kinds of presentations. Translations and pictures help people access information and gain the benefits of the digital era” [5].
Besides, zero-rating programs could offer the advantage of improving internet access for those who cannot afford internet services. It can be also an opportunity to promote local applications and services. At a recent Internet Governance Forum, zero-rating programs were cited as a popular way to provide Internet service in developing nations [6]. It’s true that some critics assert that zero-rating programs limit competition and are discriminatory, but I think that in the Tunisian context we should encourage zero-rating programs and consider legislation to limit their practices when they challenge the competition and net neutrality.
Innovating policies:
Setting up the right policies is paramount to increase internet access in Tunisia. In Tunisia we are aware that we have to update our telecommunications code to change some blocking policies, such as the one concerning the optic fiber network. The new digital code will add innovative policies to strengthen the infrastructure and the broadband technologies encourage the use of internet and provide funds. Considering zero-rating programs in the new digital code would be interesting in order to make the right use of these programs without undermining the net neutrality and the free competition.
The government should set policies to decrease taxes and network costs to improve connecting households below the average income and allow firms to invest more in infrastructure. I want also to underline the importance of promoting freedom of expression, which I consider vital to increase access to the internet, and I want highlight the role of multi-stakeholder model in making such policies. It is worth noting though that today the internet is considered free in Tunisia. After the uprising, there is no more blocking and no more censorship on the Internet, but making policies under the multi-stakeholder model is still challenging.
Tunisia is striving to increase internet access, especially in rural areas. One the main project of its ambitious strategy is connecting 100% of families. The ways to meet this endeavor include public-private cooperation, providing affordable services, providing diverse content, improving digital literacy, and setting up the right policies that promote competition, freedom of expression, and digital trust, relying on multi-stakeholderism.

References and further readings
  1.  p.4., p 11.
  3. Deloitte. February, 2014. Value of connectivity: Economic and social benefits of expanding internet access, p. 10. ash3/t39.2365/851546_1398036020459876_1878998841_n.pdf
  4. Raul Katz, Ernesto Flores-Roux, and Judith Mariscal, “The Impact of Taxation on the Development of the Mobile Broadband Sector,” Telecom Advisory Services for GSMA, 2014, pp. 6-7.
  5. UNESCO, “Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism on Internet” communication-and-information/access-to-knowledge/linguistic-diversity-and-multilingualism-on- internet/  
  6. McKinsey & Company, “India’s Internet Opportunity,” March 2013.
  7. Roslyn Layton, “IGF Highlights how Developing Countries Use Zero Rating Programs to Drive Interest Adoption,”, September 4, 2014.