Covid drives Internet uptake but many are still left behind - ITU

Millions of people became new Internet users in the past two years, but over a third of the world's population has still never gone online, according to new statistics from the ITU.

Mary Lennighan

December 3, 2021

3 Min Read
fibre broadband
Internet connection with the optical fiber. Concept of fast internet

Millions of people became new Internet users in the past two years, but over a third of the world’s population has still never gone online, according to new statistics from the ITU.

The UN’s telecoms body identified what it terms a Covid connectivity boost, which pushed the number of people online to 4.9 million this year from 4.1 million in 2019, many of them driven by the need to work remotely, home educate, and access essential services, including news, health updates, online banking and so on. But while that is clearly a positive development, it’s not all good news: many people, particularly in the world’s poorer countries, are still being left behind.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out, as the ITU does, that although the number of people online has grown, not all of the 4.9 billion could really be described as Internet users. Many hundreds of millions may only be able to use the Internet infrequently, with access only through a shared device, while poor connection speeds can have a serious impact on how useful their time online actually is. The connectivity gap is bigger than the headline figures suggest.

“While almost two-thirds of the world’s population is now online, there is a lot more to do to get everyone connected to the Internet,” said ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao. “ITU will work with all parties to make sure that the building blocks are in place to connect the remaining 2.9 billion.”

Of course, the ITU did not specify what it will actually do to help rectify the situation, but still, the intent is there. And to be fair, it has identified some of the biggest stumbling blocks.

These include a “glaring gap” between digital network availability and uptake. 95% of people in the world could theoretically access a 3G or 4G network, billions choose not to do so. One major reason for this is the affordability of both devices and services.

There have been many, high-profile attempts to address the former, from the big vendors, tech companies and operators. But the latter is a trickier proposition.

“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,” the ITU said.

Is that a hint to operators to do more for the super-price-sensitive end of the market? Possibly. If so, it’s Africa’s telcos that need to take heed.

According to the ITU report, fixed broadband across Africa as a whole costs 18.6% of GNI, while a mobile broadband data only connection comes in at 4.4%. In most markets, mobile packages are coming in below or around that magic 2% figure, but naturally fixed broadband is more expensive; it’s at 4.7% of GNI in the Americas, for example.

The ITU also highlighted the lack of digital skills or of understanding the benefits of an online connection, exacerbated by the lack of local language content and barriers to entry for those without literacy and numeracy skills.

The bottom line is, for most people, the networks are there, but for various reasons many are choosing not to use them. That’s perhaps a bit over simplistic. This is not purely a question of taking a horse to water and then being unable to make it drink. We need to ensure that the horse knows what the water is, has the ability to drink it, and can afford to do so.

And we still need more water.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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