THE immense potential of the Internet for social and economic good remains largely untapped despite 30 years of steady growth, according to a new report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies.
Launched to coincide with the opening of ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, the Global Connectivity Report 2022 argued that while easy, affordable access to fast broadband is near-ubiquitous in most rich-world nations, vast swaths of humanity remain excluded from the immense possibilities offered by the online experience, stunting economic development and deepening global inequalities.
While the number of Internet users surged from a just a few million in the early 1990s to almost five billion today, 2.9 billion people – or around one third of humanity – still remained totally offline, and many hundreds of millions more struggle with expensive, poor-quality access that does little to materially improve their lives.
The report revealed that nearly 40 years on, ‘missing link’ still persists, but has morphed to multiple digital divides. This, according to the report include, the Income Divide – the level of Internet use in low-income countries (22 per cent) remains far below that of high-income countries, which are approaching universal use (91 per cent); urban-rural divide – the share of Internet users is twice as high in urban areas as in rural areas.
ITU noted that for Gender Divide, globally, 62 per cent of men are using the Internet, compared with 57 per cent of women. In terms of Generation Divide, the report noted that in all regions, young people 15-24 years are more avid Internet users (72 per cent online) than the rest of the population (57 per cent)
On Education Divide, ITU observed that in nearly all countries where data are available, rates of Internet use are higher for those with more education – in many cases, far higher. The report noted that the biggest challenges in connecting the unconnected are no longer related to network coverage, but rather to uptake and use.
It stressed that with just five per cent of the global population still physically out of reach of a mobile broadband signal, the ‘coverage gap’ is now dwarfed by the ‘usage gap’: some 32 per cent of people, who are within range of a mobile broadband network and could theoretically connect still remain offline, due to prohibitive costs, lack of access to a device, or lack of awareness, skills, or ability to find useful content.
The report advocated putting ‘universal and meaningful connectivity’ – defined as the possibility of a safe, satisfying, enriching, productive, and affordable online experience for everyone – at the centre of global development. It also evaluated how close the world is to achieving that universal and meaningful connectivity, using the connectivity targets for 2030 recently released by ITU and the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology.
The cost of broadband subscriptions and digital devices remains a major barrier to connectivity, the report confirmed. It noted that while Internet access has become progressively cheaper in richer countries, getting online is still prohibitively expensive in many in low- and lower-middle-income economies.
And although the cost of broadband – especially mobile broadband – has fallen significantly over the past decade, the majority of low- and middle-income economies still fall short of the global affordability target of two per cent or less of gross national income per capita set by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.
“Equitable access to digital technologies isn’t just a moral responsibility, it’s essential for global prosperity and sustainability,” said ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao. “We need to create the right conditions, including promoting environments conducive to investment, to break cycles of exclusion and bring digital transformation to all.”
While the COVID-related surge in demand for Internet access brought some 800 million additional people online, it also dramatically increased the cost of digital exclusion, with those unable to connect abruptly shut out of employment, schooling, access to health advice, financial services, and much more.