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Defining price versus affordability 

Defining the 'affordability' of telecom services can be very hard. This question can be answered statistically in different ways, depending on whether we examine:​​

Standardized price baskets can be used to compare prices between operators and/or countries. Prices can strongly impact the profitability of mobile operators, and their ability to survive, upgrade and reinvest in networks. Prices for initial service launches may be high ('premium pricing'), but usually fall as services are rolled out across larger subscriber bases (sometimes due to 'economies of scale' or 'predatory pricing').

The 'price' of telecom/ICT services is often cited as a barrier to using telecom services, but what really matters is the 'affordability' or ease of purchasing a service, relative to consumer income. Prices can be expressed as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita to show prices relative to the size of the economy of each country, thus pointing to the affordability of each ICT service at country level. Such national averages may not indicate that ICT services are affordable for poorer social classes, or any particular household or individual. Beyond national averages, taking into consideration the distribution of income or consumption in a country may provide further insights into affordability – such as how much ICT services cost relative to the income of the lowest-earning 40% of the population. 

Baskets provide a helpful standard benchmark for comparisons , but they have some drawbacks: there are many other packages available to consumers; they may not take account of the evolving consumer behavior over time; and they use a 'weighted average' price, irrespective of number of subscribers that use it.

The ITU Expert Group on Telecommunication/ICT Indicators (EGTI) maintains a set of baskets that represent the variety of consumption patterns in developing and developed countries around the world. These include a fixed broadband, a mobile cellular low-usage, a mobile broadband data-only as well as high- and low-consumption data and voice baskets.

For affordability, ITU monitors price trends for the five baskets at the global, as well as at country level. While overall, the basket prices are declining, there is still a number of countries where data and telecom services are relatively unaffordable, costing above 10% of GNI per capita.  


The telecom/ICT sector is very complex, with many converged services. Historically, prices used to be paid and settled on the basis of per minute charges or tariffs. Today, however, many operators have moved to Internet Protocol (IP)-based networks and now price their communication services on a 'flat-rate' basis, for a certain amount of data. This relates to the consumption of services (e.g. movies, online games) using large amounts of data.

Comparable data is needed to assess the impacts of prices on access and consumer welfare and to enable regulators and consumers to compare prices and identify trends. ITU works closely with other regional and international bodies (including the UN, Eurostat, OECD and the Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development and country experts) on developing international definitions, standards and methodologies for telecommunication/ICT data.

For mobile services, prices vary hugely between a basic entry package and more sophisticated packages. Prices may also vary 'on-net' and 'off-net'. It can be difficult for consumers to compare the prices for different packages for even a single operator, at any point in time, with the ultimate price often depending on usage patterns among consumers (e.g. many operators offer free calls to contacts, friends & family and/or multiple phones linked with one household).         


​Falling prices have been linked to increased subscription rates and greater usage of ICT services; however, this relationship is only observable below a certain threshold. Different stakeholders have a different role to play.

Telecom operators have a vital role in defining, revising and pricing telecom packages for consumers – in terms of monthly subscription prices or prices per traffic. Historically, there is strong evidence to suggest that prices in mobile markets generally fell, following the introduction of strong and effective competition with alternative mobile operators.

ICT regulators often set reference interconnection offers, setting recommended or ceiling interconnection prices between operators. They often also set national benchmark prices and monitor markets through regular market surveys, to try and define, and ensure 'fair' and affordable prices for consumers, against fair returns for operators, so they can continue to invest and upgrade mobile networks.

Although operators must strike a balance between prices and profitability and reinvesting in infrastructure, Governments (Ministries and regulators) can also play a strong advocacy role, by emphasizing the importance of cheaper telecom services at the national level (e.g. through their Digital Agenda or other statement of policy). They can also convene dialogues and national consultations to define national priorities for the rollout of cheaper and more affordable digital infrastructure among different stakeholders .

ITU’s role

Last update: November 2021.