Photo credit: Onlyyouqj – Freepik.com
113 million people will join the ranks of the world’s 3.6 billion internet users by 2020, according to a new report by the United Nations’ telecom agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The largest portion will come from Latin America, followed by emerging countries in the Asia-Pacific, notably China, India and Indonesia. The report shows that urbanization and a rising middle class are the top drivers of becoming connected.
Graphic 1*: The profile of individuals who will come online by 2020
However, the global digital divide remains wide. The discrepancy in access to the Internet and digital technologies will continue to limit the full transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its potentially positive impacts on the Future of Work. At the moment, slightly over half (53% or 3.9 billion) of the world’ population is still not connected. They are mostly in Asia-Pacific (2.4 billion) and Africa (716 million). In the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) like Haiti, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan, only one-fifth (21%) of the population is online.
Graphic 2*: Distribution of the offline population in 2016 by region
The global digital divide has a human face and it disproportionately affects poor females living in rural areas. The illiterate and the elderly often remain unconnected. Rural areas often have lower levels of income and educational attainment, which can further exacerbate the problem. Globally, 58% of women are not online compared to 42% for men.
Graphic 3*: Key characteristics of the world’s offline population
Three-fifths (57%) of world’s population cannot afford the Internet because costs of end-user devices, services, access and other costs remain too high. In the developed world like in Europe, Canada and Japan, 22% of the population is offline and the top barrier is affordability. In developing countries, the top barrier is relevance. Often people can’t find content, services and apps in their primary language. Also, in developing countries, there is often lower cultural awareness of the Internet and its benefits. And there isn’t always an appreciation of the need for gender equality and inclusion in accessing the Internet and other technologies. In the Asia-Pacific region, the key barriers are the relatively large gender gap, relevance, infrastructure in rural regions and island nations, and affordability. For Africa, the key barriers are its high rural-to-urban ratio, and also it is compounded with the lowest level income and education, and the highest Internet usage gender gap.
Graphic 4*: Key Internet adoption barriers
Research reveals that women, when compared to men with the same education and income levels, are 50% less likely to be connected to the Internet. This has resulted in there being 250 million fewer women online than men worldwide. Education level and age are key drivers of women’s Internet access. More work is needed to address women’s access to the Internet. Between 2013 and 2016, the gender gap in Internet use had widened around the world, especially in Africa (from 20.7% to 23%) and Arab States (from 19% to 20%).
Graphic 5*: Focus on the gender gap
The Internet has a positive impact on economic growth. To connect the next 1.5 billion it will take an infrastructure investment of US$ 450 billion. Connecting the unconnected is the goal of the UN’s Connect 2020 Agenda, which aims to bring 60% of the global population online by 2020. The world’s digital dividends must be shared more equitably, especially as the Fourth Industrial Revolution begins to transform our economies even more profoundly. To get there, we must address the immense digital divide and overcome the barriers posed by lack of infrastructure, capacity, relevance and affordability. Figure 6 below provides an overview of the possible measures governments, the private sector and other partners can take to get more people connected.
Graphic 6*: Overview of possible measures to increase Internet user numbers
*Graphics were created by Imme Philbeck, the author of the ITU’ 2017 report, “Connecting the Unconnected”.