A UN-backed report on global broadband access has uncovered an urgent need to improve global connectivity, with traditional strategies failing to enable the remaining half of the global population to get online.
According to the State of Broadband 2019: Broadband as Foundation for Sustainable Development report – which was issued by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development – global growth in the percentage of households connected to the internet is slowing, rising only slightly to 54.8% from 53.1% last year.
In addition, it found that in low-income countries, household internet adoption had improved by a mere 0.8% on average.
Data on individuals using the internet also indicated slowing global growth in 2018, as well as a slowing growth in developing countries, which are home to the vast majority of the estimated 3.7 billion still unconnected.
The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development was established in 2010 by ITU and UNESCO with the aim of boosting the importance of broadband on the international policy agenda, and expanding broadband access in every country as key to accelerating progress towards national and international development targets.
Led by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Carlos Slim Helù of Mexico, it is co-chaired by ITU’s Secretary-General Houlin Zhao and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
“Today, the main factor preventing people in developing countries from using mobile internet is not affordability but poor literacy and digital skills,” said Azoulay [pictured]. “Gender inequality in digital technology is even more alarming. Women are less likely to have internet access than men, and this gap is widening. The 2019 UNESCO publication ‘I’d Blush If I Could’, produced under the auspices of the EQUALS Global Partnership, illustrated that women are now four times less likely than men to be digitally literate, and represent just 6% of software developers.”
The report authors called for a new set of collaborative strategies to drive the concept of ‘meaningful universal connectivity’ through greater emphasis on resource sharing and a more holistic approach that treats broadband as a basic public utility and vital enabler of global development.
They argued that the notion of ‘meaningful universal connectivity’ also includes broadband that is available, accessible, relevant and affordable, as well as safe, trusted, user-empowering and leading to positive impact.
In addition, the report authors urged policymakers to ensure the concept to underpin their new digital strategies, as governments seek to find new ways to finance network rollouts, aimed at reaching unconnected populations.
Mobile broadband continues to dominate
The State of Broadband 2019 reports that while almost one billion new mobile subscribers have been added in the five years since 2013 (4.2% average annual growth), the speed of growth in mobile connections is also slowing, particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. Mobile network coverage improved much more slowly in low-income countries, with a mere 22% improvement in 4G coverage in the past five years, compared with a 66% increase in lower-middle-income countries.
In 2018, 4G overtook 2G to become the leading mobile technology across the world, with 3.4 billion connections, accounting for 44% of the total. 4G will soon become the dominant mobile technology, surpassing half of all global mobile connections in 2019, and expected to peak at 62% of all mobile connections by 2023.
Data show that of the 730 million people expected to subscribe to mobile services for the first time over the next seven years, half will come from Asia Pacific, and just under a quarter from Sub-Saharan Africa.
New strategies to connect the unconnected
The State of Broadband 2019 takes a nuanced look at the nature of broadband connections globally, observing that a false dichotomy between ‘connected’ vs. ‘unconnected’ can hide grave disparities in access and present an inaccurate picture of the realities on the ground in many countries.
It notes, that while a connection speed of 256kbps is counted as ‘broadband’ for statistical purposes, users connecting at such speeds cannot enjoy a full online experience comparable to that of users accessing the net over the 100Mbps-or-better connections now considered ‘standard’ in the world’s wealthier nations.
The report notes that individuals who are online may not fit into neat binary statistical categories (‘users’ vs. ‘non-users’). Instead, people are adopting a wide range of ways interacting with, and benefiting from, the internet.
There is also growing recognition of the potential downsides and risks of technology adoption, particularly for more vulnerable populations including women and children, who may become victims of cyberstalking, online aggression and hate speech, or internet-enabled child abuse, exploitation, or bullying.
Richard van der Draay is in Amsterdam as a guest of Informa Tech.