Closing the digital gap: still work to be done, finds UN

Some 4 billion people in the developing world remain offline – or two-thirds of the developing world’s population, according to the UN

Most of us wouldn’t go a day without the internet. For some, wifi is as essential as food and water.

Luckily, getting online is getting easier: internet penetration has jumped seven-fold to more than 3 billion people in the 15 years since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set, of whom 2 billion are in developing countries.

There are currently two internet users in the developing world for every one in the developed world, according to the latest report from the UN’s information and communications body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Still, the information revolution has a long way to go. Some 4 billion people in the developing world remain offline – or two-thirds of the developing world’s population, said the study.

This year’s findings from the UN’s annual report into the state of internet and mobile phone use globally is especially poignant. With the MDGs due to expire at the end of 2015, the UN noted how the ICT revolution had driven global development in an “unprecedented” way.

Despite this, poorer users have less access to the internet’s world of opportunities; whether that’s rural children getting an education or an entrepreneur setting up a business. Just 34 per cent of households in the developing world are online, compared to 80 per cent in developed countries, said the ITU. The world average is 46 per cent.

In least developed countries (LDCs) the situation is worse still. Of the estimated 940 million people living in LDCs, only 89 million use the internet – a woeful penetration rate of just 9.5 per cent.

There have been efforts to make global connectivity just that: global. In February, social networking giant Facebook launched its nonprofit Internet.org app in six Indian states. Aimed at low-income and rural users, the app connects residents to 30 pared-down services via their mobile phone.

Not to be outdone, another media mogul is determined to get the world online. Virgin’s Richard Branson announced in January he is backing OneWeb, which aims to pitch a constellation of microsatellites around the earth to beam down high-speed internet to all corners of the globe.

Africa lags the most when it comes to connectivity, according to the UN’s ITU. Just one in five people in the region use the internet, compared to two in five in the Asia and Pacific region. Still, there are hopes the continent can leapfrog traditional fixed-line internet access and go straight to mobile internet, in much the same way Africa pioneered mobile banking.

By the time the MDGs expire, there will be more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions globally, noted the ITU, up from 738 million in 2000. The number of internet users worldwide has exploded in the last 15 years from 400 million in 2000 to 3.2 billion connected people globally by the end of this year, according to the UN. Global internet penetration is up from 6.5 per cent to 43 per cent in the 15-year period.

“ICTs will play an even more significant role in the post-2015 era and in achieving future Sustainable Development Goals as the world moves faster and faster towards a digital society,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU’s telecommunication development bureau.

Photo credit: UN/ ITU