Even though the world saw a much larger internet penetration, about 37 per cent of the world’s population (2.9 billion people) still have never used the Internet in their life.
A new data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), noted that about 4.9 billion people are using the Internet in 2021, which is an increase of 17 per cent since 2019.
The 2021 edition of Measuring Digital Development: Facts and figures also mentioned that Internet penetration increased more than 20 per cent on average in Africa, in Asia and the Pacific, and in the UN-designated Least Developed Countries. It noted that this was good news for global development as it helps in maintaining continuity in business activity, employment, education, provision of basic citizens’ services, entertainment, and socializing.
However, ITU data stressed that internet connection remained profoundly unequal. Noting that a connectivity ‘grand canyon’ separating the digitally empowered from the digitally excluded remained, the report said that 96 per cent of the 2.9 billion still offline lived in the developing world. Close to 30 per cent of Africa’s rural population still lacks mobile broadband coverage. Though the vast majority of the world’s people could access the Internet through mobile broadband, less than two thirds actually do.
Moreover, the report mentions that many hundreds of millions among the 4.9 billion counted as ‘Internet users’ may only get the chance to go online infrequently, via shared devices, or using connectivity speeds that markedly limit the usefulness of their connection.
ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao said that a lot more has to be done to get everyone connected to the Internet even though almost two-thirds of the world’s population is now online. “ITU will 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,” he said.
The report stated that the pandemic resulted in an increase of internet usage with several of the people going online because of widespread lockdowns and school closures. Apart from this, the need for access to news, government services, health updates, e-commerce and online banking also contributed to a ‘COVID connectivity boost since 2019.
The report notes that the share of Internet users in urban areas is twice as high as in rural areas. It also points out to a generational gap – 71 per cent of the world’s population aged 15-24 is using the Internet, compared with 57 per cent of all other age groups. Moreover, it also strikes at gender gap with 62 per cent of men using the digital world compared with 57 per cent of women. It said that digital gender divide has been narrowing across all regions and women remain digitally marginalized in many of the world’s poorest countries, where online access could potentially have its most powerful effect.
The ITU figures show that the growths since 2019 in developing countries, is largely attributed to Internet penetration, which climbed more than 13 per cent. In the 46 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the average increase exceeded 20 per cent.
Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau Doreen Bogdan-Martin said that the statistics showed great progress towards ITU’s mission to connect the world, “But a vast ‘connectivity chasm’ remains in the LDCs, where almost three quarters of people have never connected to the Internet. Women in LDCs are particularly marginalized, with roughly four out of every five still offline,” she said.
Bogadan Martin said that that several of the digitally excluded faced formidable challenges including poverty, illiteracy, limited access to electricity, and lack of digital skills and awareness. “Digital solutions would be needed to re-energize sustainable development and help put countries back on track to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030,” she said.
Digital gender divide narrowing globally, but large gaps remain in poorer countries.
- Globally, an average of 62 per cent of men use the Internet compared with 57 per cent of women.
- Although the digital gender divide has been narrowing in all world regions and has been virtually eliminated in the developed world (89 per cent of men and 88 per cent of women online) wide gaps remain in Least Developed Countries (31 per cent of men compared to just 19 per cent of women) and in Landlocked Developing Countries (38 per cent of men compared to 27 per cent of women).
- The gender divide remains particularly pronounced in Africa (35 per cent of men compared to 24 per cent of women) and the Arab States (68 per cent of men compared to 56 per cent of women).
Urban-rural gap remains major challenge for digital connectivity
- Globally, people in urban areas are twice more likely to use the Internet than those in rural areas (76 per cent urban compared to 39 per cent rural).
- In developed economies, the urban-rural gap appears negligible in terms of Internet usage (with 89 per cent of people in urban areas having used the Internet in the last three months, compared to 85 per cent in rural areas), whereas in developing countries, people in urban areas are twice as likely to use the Internet as those in rural areas (72 per cent urban compared to 34 per cent rural).
- In the LDCs, urban dwellers are almost four times as likely to use the Internet as people living in rural areas (47 per cent urban compared to 13 per cent rural).
Generational gap evident across all regions
- On average, 71 per cent of the world’s population aged 15-24 is using the Internet, compared with 57 per cent of all other age groups.
- This generational gap is reflected across all regions. It is most pronounced in the LDCs, where 34 per cent of young people are connected, compared with only 22 per cent of the rest of the population.
- Greater uptake among young people bodes well for connectivity and development. In the LDCs, for example, half of the population is less than 20 years old, suggesting that local labour markets will become progressively more connected and technology-savvy as the younger generation enters the workforce.Digital divide;
- While 95 per cent of people in the world could theoretically access a 3G or 4G mobile broadband network, billions of them do not connect.
- Affordability of devices and services remains a major barrier. The widely accepted target for affordable broadband connectivity in developing countries sets the cost of an entry-level mobile broadband package at 2 per cent of gross national income (GNI) per capita. Yet in some of the world’s poorest nations, getting online can cost a staggering 20 per cent or more of per capita GNI.
- Lack of digital skills and an appreciation of the benefits of an online connection is another bottleneck, compounded by a lack of content in local languages, as well as by interfaces that demand literacy and numeracy skills that many people do not possess.