The Internet’s immense potential for social and economic good remains largely untapped despite 30 years of steady growth, according to a new report of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.
Launched to coincide with the opening of ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, the Global Connectivity Report 2022 argues that while easy and affordable access to fast broadband is nearly ubiquitous in most wealthy countries, large swaths of humanity remain excluded from the immense opportunities offered by the online experience, which hampers economic development and deepens global inequalities.
While the number of Internet users has grown from a few million in the early 1990s to almost five billion today, 2.9 billion people – roughly one third of humanity – remain completely disconnected, and several hundred million more struggle with expensive and poor services. – quality access that does little to materially improve their lives.
“Equitable access to digital technologies is not only a moral responsibility, it is essential for global prosperity and sustainability,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “We need to create the right conditions, including by promoting investment-friendly environments, to break cycles of exclusion and bring digital transformation to all.”
While the surge in COVID-related demand for internet access has brought some 800 million more people online, it has also dramatically increased the cost of digital exclusion, with people unable to connect being abruptly deprived of access. employment, education, access to health advice, financial services, and much more.
“Universal and meaningful connectivity has become the global imperative of our decade,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which authored the report. “It’s no longer just about connecting people – the catalytic role of connectivity will also be absolutely critical to our success in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”
Still looking for the “missing link”
‘The missing link published in 1984 by the Independent Commission for the Development of World Telecommunications established by the ITU, identified a clear correlation between access to telecommunications and socio-economic development and urged all countries to make connectivity a priority.
Almost 40 years later, this “missing link” still persists, but has turned into multiple digital divides:
- The Revenue Division – the level of Internet use in low-income countries (22%) remains much lower than in high-income countries, which are approaching universal use (91%)
- The Urban-rural divide – the share of Internet users is twice as high in urban areas as in rural areas
- The Divide the sexes – worldwide, 62% of men use the Internet, compared to 57% of women
- The Division of generations – in all regions, young people aged 15-24 are more avid Internet users (72% online) than the rest of the population (57%)
- The education gap – In almost all countries where data is available, rates of Internet use are higher for those with more education – in many cases, much higher.
The report notes that the greatest challenges in connecting the unconnected are no longer related to network coverage, but rather to adoption and usage.
While only 5% of the world’s population is still physically out of range of a mobile broadband signal, the “coverage gap” is now dwarfed by the “usage gap”: some 32% of people are within range of a mobile broadband network and could theoretically connect always remain offline, due to prohibitive costs, lack of access to a device, or lack of awareness, skills, or ability to find useful content.