The GSMA, an industry association for mobile operators, announced membership of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI).

The alliance, comprising over 50 members from the public and private sector, aims to drive down “artificially high internet prices” in developing countries through regulatory and policy reform.

“We welcome the opportunity to become a member of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and to help tackle one of the most pressing technological challenges in less-developed countries,” said Anne Bouverot, GSMA’s director general.

According to GSMA Intelligence figures, mobile subscriber penetration rates are as low as 20 per cent in Ethiopia, 28 per cent in India and 30 per cent in Pakistan (although high levels of multiple SIM ownership mean the numbers of mobile connections are higher).

Affordability is a big stumbling block in making internet access more widely available in emerging markets.

According to the International Telecommunications Union – using data from March 2013 – the price of an entry-level mobile broadband plan in developed markets is around 1.2 per cent to 2.2 per cent of gross national income per capita. In emerging economies, the figure rises to between 11.3 per cent and a staggering 24.7 per cent.

A4AI shares the target set by the UN Broadband Commission of entry-level broadband services priced at less than five per cent of average monthly income.

“There is an urgent need for affordable smartphones, the rapid, economically viable deployment of wireless broadband infrastructure in rural areas and the promotion of digital literacy to help connect the unconnected in underserved communities around the world,” added Bouverot.

Launched in October 2013, the alliance was initiated by the World Wide Web Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by web pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

The aim is to bring different stakeholders together in order to discuss and decide upon national policies that widen internet access.

Reducing import duties on equipment and handsets, and cutting taxes on mobile services, are some of the areas the alliance is looking to explore.

Coordinating with other infrastructure projects, such as laying fibre or ducts during road works, is another focus, as is allowing operators to share infrastructure and get easier access to public rights of way.

“Despite recent falls in prices, mobile broadband remains prohibitively expensive in most developing countries,” said Sonia Jorge, executive director of the alliance. “A4AI’s recent affordability report highlighted that for those living on less than $2 a day, mobile broadband costs in excess of 20 per cent of monthly incomes in many countries, and skyrockets to as much as 48 per cent of income in Colombia, and 35 per cent in Zambia.”

Prior to A4AI launch, the GSMA worked with the alliance to help shape its principles and policy positions.

While the two organisations’ respective positions are aligned, the press release noted that A4AI’s principle around using unlicensed spectrum and opportunistic reuse within rules that avoid harmful interference contrasts with the GSMA’s position that the use of ‘white space’ should not jeopardise future reallocation of TV broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband and the economic benefits this would bring.

The GSMA will work closely with A4AI to identify policy and regulatory barriers to Internet access and affordability and collaborate on plans to address these issues on a worldwide basis.

“In-country work” by the alliance is scheduled to start in Nigeria and Ghana during Q1 2014 with more countries to follow

Among the A4AI members are Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco,  Ericsson, Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft.