Despite the digital divide, the Internet’s promise remains unexplored – New analysis

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Despite 30 years of steady expansion, the Internet’s great potential for social and economic good remains largely unexplored, according to a new analysis from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s specialized body for information and communication technologies.

The Global Connectivity Report 2022, released to coincide with the opening of the ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, argued that while most rich-world countries have near-ubiquitous access to fast broadband, vast swaths of humanity remain excluded from the immense possibilities offered by the online experience, stunting economic development and deepening global inequalities.

Despite the fact that the number of Internet users has grown from a few million in the early 1990s to nearly five billion today, 2.9 billion people – roughly one-third of humanity – remain completely offline, and hundreds of millions more struggle with expensive, low-quality access that does little to improve their lives.

According to the paper, the’missing link’ still exists over 40 years later, but it has evolved into many digital divides. This includes the wealth split – low-income countries’ Internet use (22%) remains much behind that of high-income countries, which is approaching universal use (91%); and the urban-rural divide – the share of Internet users is twice as high in urban areas as in rural regions, according to the research.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 62 percent of men and 57 percent of women use the Internet internationally. In terms of the Generation Divide, the survey found that young people aged 15 to 24 are more active Internet users (72%) than the rest of the population in all regions (57 per cent)

On the Education Divide, the ITU found that in nearly every country where data is available, rates of Internet use are higher – in many cases, substantially higher – for people with more education. According to the research, the largest obstacles to connecting the unconnected are not network coverage, but rather uptake and use.

The ‘coverage gap’ is now dwarfed by the ‘usage gap,’ according to the report, with only 5% of the global population still physically out of reach of a mobile broadband signal. Some 32% of people who are within range of a mobile broadband network and could theoretically connect remain offline due to prohibitive costs, lack of access to a device, or lack of awareness, skills, or ability to find useful content.

The paper recommended for putting ‘universal and meaningful connectivity,’ defined as the ability for everyone to have a safe, satisfying, enriching, productive, and cheap online experience. It also assessed how near the globe is to reaching universal and meaningful connectivity, based on the ITU’s and the UN Secretary-Envoy General’s on Technology’s connectivity targets for 2030.

According to the survey, the cost of internet connections and digital gadgets remains a major barrier to connectivity. While Internet connection has become increasingly affordable in wealthy countries, it remains prohibitively expensive in many low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Despite the fact that the cost of broadband – particularly mobile broadband – has decreased significantly over the last decade, the majority of low- and middle-income economies still fall short of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s global affordability target of 2% or less of gross national income per capita.

“Equitable access to digital technologies isn’t only a moral obligation; it’s critical for global prosperity and sustainability,” said Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union. “To overcome cycles of exclusion and bring digital transformation to all, we need to create the necessary conditions, including fostering investment-friendly environments.” ​

While the COVID-related boom in Internet demand brought an additional 800 million people online, it also drastically increased the cost of digital exclusion, with individuals who couldn’t connect being cut off from jobs, schooling, health advice, financial services, and much more.

“Universal, meaningful connectivity has become the global need for our decade,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the International Telecommunication Union’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which authored the report. “Connectivity’s catalytic function will be vitally critical to our success in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals; it’s no longer just about connecting people.”

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