NOTICE | Think we’ve gone digital? Not so fast – nearly 3 billion people have been left behind

As of December 2021, an estimated 2.9 billion people – almost 40% of the world’s population – have never used the internet, writes Warren Thomas.


In a global economy where digital literacy makes the difference between being employed or not, and being educated or not, internet connection has become an essential need. The United Nations defines being online as “having used the internet from any device in any location at least once in the past three months“. I’ve been on the internet several times in the past three hours alone, for work, to communicate with colleagues, and to drive innovation.

The Covid-19 crisis accelerated internet usage by more than 10% in the first year of the pandemic. In 2020, the number of people who logged on was 4.9 billion, up from 4.1 billion in 2019. This adoption was the largest user increase in a decade. However, hundreds of millions of these infrequently connected users had to share devices to connect, or faced extremely slow connection speeds.

According to United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it is disheartening to note that as of December 2021, around 2.9 billion people had never used the internet. Putting this into perspective, an estimated 37% of the world’s population has never experienced the joy of connecting to a digital world. Furthermore, 96% of this population lives in developing countries and receives little or no affordable and quality technical and vocational education and training (TVET).

Nearly three quarters of the population have never used the Internet in the 46 least developed countries, and Internet connection in the poorest countries is often prohibitively expensive. The UN target for affordable Internet is two percent of monthly income for one gigabyte of data. It is determined that this cost will provide basic internet access for the most part. However, in reality, only the richest 20% of South Africans can afford it. For the bottom 60%, basic internet access costs between 6% and 21% of their monthly income. In countries like Mozambique – one of the poorest African countries – internet access is not affordable for almost the entire region.

Being connected produces opportunities for education, employment and dignity. But how can users enjoy these benefits if they cannot access them due to lack of internet? Poverty, the lack of digital literacy and poor infrastructure such as the lack of electricity are uncertain causes of the widening of the digital divide. As the gap widens, children become disillusioned because the essential skills to participate in a digital economy are not provided, and they fall further behind.

The world’s poorest nations will be locked out of online engagement for decades without meaningful interventions to bolster education, including online literacy and investment in broadband infrastructure.

Adrian Lovett, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, said in an article published by The Guardian,

“If you’re not connected when the majority of your fellow citizens around the world are, you become marginalized in a way that could be more serious and more difficult than perhaps anything we’ve seen before.”

The countries that remain offline are mostly rural, on the outskirts of their urban counterparts, where the costs of installing mobile internet towers can be five times higher. The higher costs intensify when communities are poorer and lack education. Telecommunications companies need substantial incentives to connect these population groups. There is a will, but apparently, no way.

The developed world is so far ahead with no signs of slowing down as advancements in technology intensify, leaving the still-developing world in its digital dust.

Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable the Internet says in the same article:

“Given the recent decline in growth levels of Internet usage and the high costs of Internet access for significant levels of low-income populations around the world, it is possible that we will not reach the universal access only in 2050 or later”.

It’s a generation and 30 years away from the UN’s original goal of affordable internet access for all by 2020.

Access and affordability are eclipsed only by the lack of education in developing countries. Too many children in sub-Saharan Africa, aged 6 to 11, are not in primary school (UNESCO, 2019). However, skills in coding, robotics, and other 4IR subjects are essential to secure future job opportunities. E-learning has become a cornerstone in advancing livelihood security. But if education is absent, what will they do with the Internet once it is available?

When government and private companies invest in broadband infrastructure, it must include training and education. Suppose people cannot read or write to lay the foundation for digital understanding through STEM and TVET curricula. In this case, they will not benefit from an internet connection.

There is also the concern of marginalizing population groups in access to goods and services as businesses shift to an online environment. Other inaccessible services include online public debates, social groups, and digital government services such as filing taxes and applying for ID cards.

Internet access drives economic growth

A 2012 report from the University of California at Berkeley found that a 10% increase in broadband access leads to a 1.35% increase in GDP in developing countries. Likewise, a report of Deloitte found that a doubling of mobile data usage increased GDP per capita by half a percentage point.

In October 2018, a investigation conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC found that citizens of six sub-Saharan countries enjoyed many benefits from being online. Data collected in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania indicated that 79% of respondents believed that adequate internet access improved education. More than 50% thought it benefited the economy, politics and personal relationships.

These reports show that the Internet connection provides a better quality of life, not just a hub for entertainment. It breaks down barriers, boosts economies, builds relationships, educates and uplifts those who are excluded from developing a digital footprint. Internet connectivity is shaping the careers of the future and providing a gateway to access even the most basic needs. It invites previously excluded population groups into conversations and provides much-needed services, such as in the fintech sector.

Internet connection requires increased attention, investment and innovative solutions to reach our near and far corners of the world. Cutting-edge solutions like satellite constellations or high-altitude balloons could make massive progress towards the UN’s sustainability goal. As the rift continues to widen, we have a moral obligation to leave no one disconnected and to ensure that this silver bullet works.

Thomas is Marketing Director at Rocket Net. The views are his.

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