Slow Progress in Reducing Global Digital Divides

Article By : John Walko

Despite promising improvements over the past 12 months, 2.9 billion people globally, or 37% of the world's population, have never used the Internet.

If you are reading this, you are clearly one of the 4.9 billion who have accessed the Internet.

However, figures just released by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU) suggest that, despite promising improvements over the past 12 months, 2.9 billion people globally, or 37% of the world’s population, have never used it.

Telecommunications

The UN agency posits that the latest figures represent ‘good news for global development’, but the detail indicates that the ability to connect remains profoundly unequal.

Of the 2.9 billion still off-line, the ITU estimates that 96% reside in developing countries. And its report suggests that even among the 4.9 billion “Internet users”, many hundreds of millions likely only get the opportunity to connect infrequently, mostly via shared devices or using data rates that significantly limit the usefulness of the connection.

The ITU reckons there has been strong global growth in Internet usage over the last year, in part due to the Coronavirus epidemic, up from an estimated 4.1 billion in 2019, or an increase of 17%.

Commenting on the findings, ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhou, while welcoming this progress, conceded “there is a lot more to do to get everyone connected to the Internet” and pledged that the ITU would “work with all parties to make sure that the building blocks are in place to connect the remaining 2.9 billion. We are determined to ensure no-one will be left behind.”

The ITU publishes an annual review of the state of digital connectivity from around the world, and the 2021 edition indicates that Internet usage advanced by just over 10% during the first year of the pandemic – by far the largest annual increase in a decade.

But this strong performance since 2019 was almost totally driven by increases in developing countries, with Internet penetration increasing by 13%. In the 46 countries designated by the UN as Least Developed Countries (LDC), the average increase was just above 20%.

“These statistics show great progress towards ITU’s mission to connect the world,” noted Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the organization’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which oversees the ITU’s data and analytics work. “But a vast ‘connectivity chasm’ remains in the LDCs, where almost three-quarters of people have never connected to the Internet. Women in LDC’s are particularly marginalized, with roughly four out of every five still off-line.”

She noted that the majority of these ‘digitally excluded’ face formidable challenges such as poverty, limited access to electricity, lack of skills and awareness, and illiteracy. According to Bogdan-Martin, digital solutions are badly needed to re-energize sustainable development and help put countries back on track so as to meet the Agency’s global development goals over the next decade.

Separately, the 2021 edition of the Agency’s “Facts and Figures” report also indicates some interesting statistics as to global Internet usage. For instance, 62% of men use the Internet, but only 57% of women. Such a gender divide is particularly pronounced in Africa, where 35% of males get on-line, compared with just 24% of females.

The report also highlights that there is still a significant urban-rural divide, which, though less severe in developed countries, “remains a major challenge for digital connectivity in the rest of the world.”

It seems globally, people in urban areas are twice as likely to go on-line as those in rural communities (76% urban compared to 39% rural.)

Less surprisingly, it seems, on average, 71% of the world’s population aged 15-24 regularly uses the Internet, compared with just 57% of all other ages. Such a generational gap is reflected across all regions, but is most pronounced in the LDC’s, where 34% of the young people are connected, compared with just 22% of the rest of the population.

The ITU figures also highlight a really worrying and ‘glaring gap’ between digital network availability versus actual connection. Thus, while 95% of the global population could theoretically access a 3G or 4G mobile broadband network, billions of them don’t actually get on-line.

Not surprisingly, the affordability of devices and services is said to be the major barrier. More precisely, the widely accepted target for affordable broadband connectivity sets the cost of an entry-level mobile broadband package at 2% of gross national income per capita. Compare that with the majority of the poorest nations, where the ITU suggests that getting on-line can cost a staggering 20% or more of per capita GNI.

The ITU report also posits that a serious lack of digital skills and an appreciation of the benefits also represent a bottleneck, compounded by a general lack of content in local languages, not to mention the profligacy of interfaces that demand literacy and numeric skills that many just do not get the opportunity to learn.

While much of this situation is downbeat, the ITU report might have referenced some of the innovative work some of the biggest tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are doing to solve the problems. For them, it is a huge opportunity to bring the missing billions on-line.

For instance, all are busy building sub-sea Internet infrastructure. And numerous groups focusing on broadband via satellites, including SpaceX, Inmarsat and Amazon, are spending billions to provide connectivity via satellites rather than expensive and often ill-suited fibre for poor, rural communities.

Let’s hope that in the not-too-distant future, the ITU’s statistics will start reflecting these advances towards reducing the digital divide.

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