November 30, 2021

ITU Report Suggests 'COVID Connectivity Boost' – but World's Poorest Being Left Far Behind

Writing the Forward for a report produced by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, says "An estimated 4.9 billion people are using the Internet in 2021, according to latest estimates in this 2021 edition of Measuring Digital Development: Facts and figures. That means that roughly 63 percent of the world's population is now online – an increase of 17 percent – with almost 800 million people estimated to have come online since 2019. Internet penetration increased more than 20 percent on average in Africa, in Asia and the Pacific, and in the UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs)."

Moreover, according to Ms. Bogdan-Martin, "It is clear that ICTs and the Internet have been vital in helping maintain continuity in business activity, employment, education, provision of basic citizens' services, entertainment, and socializing. Digital platforms and services have enabled countless innovations that helped mitigate the health, social and economic costs of the tragedy, and build resilience against future crises."

Key findings of the 2021 edition of Facts and Figures, ITU's annual overview of the state of digital connectivity worldwide, include:

The digital gender divide is narrowing globally, but large gaps remain in poorer countries.
  • Globally, an average of 62 percent of men use the Internet compared with 57 percent of women.
  • Although the digital gender divide has been narrowing in all world regions and has been virtually eliminated in the developed world (89 percent of men and 88 percent of women online) wide gaps remain in Least Developed Countries (31 percent of men compared to just 19 percent of women) and in Landlocked Developing Countries (38 percent of men compared to 27 percent of women).
  • The gender divide remains particularly pronounced in Africa (35 percent of men compared to 24 percent of women) and the Arab States (68 percent of men compared to 56 percent of women).
The urban-rural gap, though less severe in developed countries, remains a major challenge for digital connectivity in the rest of the world.
  • Globally, people in urban areas are twice as likely to use the Internet than those in rural areas (76 percent urban compared to 39 percent rural).
  • In developed economies, the urban-rural gap appears negligible in terms of Internet usage (with 89 percent of people in urban areas having used the Internet in the last three months, compared to 85 percent 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 percent urban compared to 34 percent rural).
  • In the LDCs, urban dwellers are almost four times as likely to use the Internet as people living in rural areas (47 percent urban compared to 13 percent rural).
A generational gap is evident across all world regions.
  • On average, 71 percent of the world's population aged 15-24 is using the Internet, compared with 57 percent of all other age groups.
  • This generational gap is reflected across all regions. It is most pronounced in the LDCs, where 34 percent of young people are connected, compared with only 22 percent 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 labor markets will become progressively more connected and technology-savvy as the younger generation enters the workforce.
ITU continues monitoring the world's evolving digital divide.
  • ITU figures also point to a glaring gap between digital network availability versus actual connection. While 95 percent 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 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita. Yet in some of the world's poorest nations, getting online can cost a staggering 20 percent 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.

The digital divide, which is the gulf between those who have ready access to the Internet and those who do not, is a topic often discussed on this forum. And while it is encouraging to see entrepreneurs launch tech startups in low- and middle-income countries, the success of these new enterprises and the benefits their digital platforms and services can bring to consumers is limited if people are unable to access the Internet. As Ms. Bogdan-Martin insightfully notes in the report, "We cannot close the digital divide if we cannot measure it. And we cannot connect the unconnected if we do not know who they are, where they live, and why they remain offline – nor can we measure the success of our policies to bridge the gap.

"Through a set of unique and timely statistics, ITU’s Facts and figures sheds light on the multiple facets and evolving nature of the digital divide and takes stock of the progress towards closing it."

What do you think of the report's findings? What are your recommendations for bridging the digital divide?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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