Global digital divide crisis: The fate of 2.6 billion people unconnected to Internet

by Christopher Kiiza
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Over the past five years, the global population of Internet users has expanded significantly, with over one billion new users coming online. The COVID-19 pandemic notably accelerated this trend, resulting in an estimated 466 million people using the Internet for the first time in 2020 alone. By the middle of 2022, the number of Internet users had reached approximately 5.4 billion, representing over 63 percent of the global population. However, a significant portion of the world’s population, about 2.6 billion people, remains offline. These individuals predominantly reside in least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states (SIDS).

In 2019, there was a stark contrast in Internet usage between different regions. In developed countries, 87% of the population used the Internet, compared to just 44% in developing countries. Despite the widespread coverage of mobile-broadband networks in virtually all urban areas globally, substantial disparities in connectivity and Internet access persist in rural regions. In 2020, 76% of households in urban areas had Internet access at home, nearly double the 39% of households in rural areas, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the United Nations’ specialized agency responsible for ICTs.

The connectivity gap is particularly severe in rural areas of LDCs. In these regions, 15% of the rural population lives in areas without any mobile coverage, and an additional 10% are limited to coverage by only a 2G network.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a substantial increase in overall Internet access, as more people turned to the online world for work, entertainment, and communication. However, in many countries, the pandemic also intensified existing digital divides. These divides are evident not only between different countries but also within individual nations, highlighting disparities related to age, disability, gender, geographic location, and socioeconomic status.

With many essential services now being offered online, there is a significant and immediate risk that individuals without broadband Internet access may find themselves increasingly marginalized and left further behind. The Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission, Nyombi Thembo describes the situation as digital darkness. The situation, he says, calls for urgent action.

“Telecommunications regulators must be at the forefront of enunciating dynamic regulatory interventions to ensure that this number of unconnected people reduces rapidly. Access to the Internet is no longer a luxury; it has become an absolute necessity, denial of which means denial to essential services like education, medical care, financial inclusion to mention but a few,” he says.

For many people in the developing world, especially in LDCs, mobile telephony and Internet access remain unaffordable. The cost of broadband Internet access remains above the affordability target set by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development – namely, 2% of monthly gross national income (GNI) per capita for a number of LDCs. “There is a need to ensure that affordable smart devices are available to enable optimal usage of the internet,” Nyombi Thembo says.

In 2021, only 96 economies met the 2 percent target for the data-only mobile broadband basket, which is seven fewer than in 2020. Similarly, only 64 economies met the target for the fixed broadband basket, a decrease of two from the previous year. After years of consistent decline, the proportion of income spent on telecommunication and Internet services increased globally in 2021. This increase was primarily due to the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the International Telecommunication Union and the Alliance for Affordable Internet Report 2022.

In many economies, the long-standing trend of gradually declining prices for these services was outweighed by a sharp drop in average gross national income (GNI) levels in 2020. As a result, children and young people from the poorest households, as well as those in rural and lower-income states, are falling further behind their peers in terms of digital inclusion. They are facing fewer opportunities to catch up, and are disproportionately exposed to poverty and unemployment. The lack of connectivity curtails not only the socio-economic development of individuals but it cascades upwards and affects an entire nation.

Policy makers and all industry captains cannot talk about poverty reduction and sustainable development without interrogating how these can be impacted by enhanced and global usage of the internet. “Our young people, more so in sub-Saharan Africa are yearning for enhanced connectivity-as they have become increasingly aware that the opportunities we have been denied for centuries, we can catch up on through global connectivity. The young people want to punch above their weight – they want to do things differently and the internet holds the key to this, so we must not betray their dreams,” Nyombi Thembo says.

Lack of connectivity affects several dimensions of human existence: it affects the initiatives aimed at getting people out of poverty, access to key information, civic engagement and participation among others. “We are in a race against time because the technological advancements are progressing at a dizzying speed, and it is honestly far easier and more effective for us to engage in digital inclusion initiatives now than playing a catchup game at a later stage,” says Nyombi Thembo.

To achieve digital inclusion and digital equity, and secure a connected world where each individual can purposefully thrive in the digital era, regulators, policymakers, and industry leaders need to adopt a collaborative approach to formulating policies that are inclusive and make significant investments in building the infrastructure that will lead to the unconnected populations receiving connectivity, and also being effectively empowered on using the various digital tools available.

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