Limited progress made on closing the digital divide

Limited progress

Connectivity is a necessity when talking with friends and family, learning new things, launching a business and finding employment. Despite this, there are still approximately 3.8 billion people around the world who do not have access to faster or reliable internet. Facebook connectivity is now working with network operators, manufacturers and other partners in order to develop technologies and introduces new initiatives that will change that.

For the previous 3 years, Facebook has commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to develop a thorough inclusive internet index (3is) that assesses a specific country’s internet inclusion across 4 key categories: availability, affordability, relevance and readiness.

This year, the Index was expanded to include 100 countries, representing 94% of the world’s population and 96% of global GDP. Furthermore, the 3i study accompanied by a Value of the Internet Survey, which polled 5,069 respondents from 99 countries to measure perceptions on how internet use effects people’s livelihood.

Much the same as last year’s index, which concluded that there was some cause for optimism, we are still very far away from attaining full internet inclusivity – as this year’s 3i study also shows mixed results.

This year’s study shows that limited progress has been made in closing the digital divide. In contrast to previous years, the gap between low-income countries and high-income countries have widened. Despite this, the overall gap between those with access to the internet and those without, narrowed – this is a result of progress on access, quality of coverage, and affordability – the low-income countries have fallen behind as they have progressed at a slower rate than other countries, much slower than last year. Internet connections in low-income countries increased by only 0.8% compared to 65.1% last year.

This slow rate of progress may well be a blip in the grand scheme of things. If it is the start of a trend, then that would be an alarming change that would demand a greater focus on the part of all major players – including the private sector and policy makers. Whatever the case, this emphasizes the importance of projects such as Facebook connectivity, to partner with all aspects of the technology and cellular ecosystem – with the intention of increasing availability and affordable internet. 

On a happier note, this year’s 3i did find that inclusion for women and those with disabilities has improved, with low-income countries driving the progress. Despite this, affordability is declining in relation to people’s monthly income in many countries. This is affecting mainly women and people in low-income countries, all of whom, depend on mobile as their main way of accessing the internet.

This year’s index and survey found:

  • Steady overall progress but slow growth of connectivity in low-income countries: While the percentage of households connected to the internet globally increased, on average, from 53.1% to 54.8%, the rate of growth in internet connections slowed to 2.9% in 2019 from 7.7% in 2018. The largest year-over-year increases were in Cameroon (106.7%), Kenya (34.3%) and Kuwait (28.3%).
  • Mobile internet services improved, but many low-income countries are seeing slow progress: In some countries, fixed-line internet access is too expensive or inaccessible — that’s why mobile services are critical. This year’s 3i reveals that, while lower-middle-income countries had a significant 66% improvement in 4G coverage, low-income countries saw a moderate 22% improvement. .
  • Web accessibility standards have improved globally, led by low-and lower-middle-income countries: Accessibility issues prevented many people with disabilities from accessing the internet. However, the accessibility divide, as measured by W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) global standard, has been narrowing. The average web accessibility score improved by 9.7% compared with 2018. In low- and lower-middle-income countries, the score improved by 29.4% and 23.5%, respectively.
  • Low- and lower-middle-income countries narrowed gender gap: Men are more likely to have internet access than women in 84% of the indexed countries. However, in a positive trend in 2018, low- and lower-middle-income countries drove progress to narrow the gender gap. While there remains much to be done, there are apparent benefits from comprehensive female e-inclusion policies, digital skills programs, and targets for women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The UK, Namibia, and Ireland, followed by Austria, Chile, and South Africa, are among the top performers of the year, all with female digital skills training plans.
  • Despite privacy concerns, the internet is crucial for employment and improving livelihood: Carrying over from last year’s findings, more than half (52.2%) of respondents say they are not confident about their online privacy. Yet the majority of respondents (74.4%) think the internet has been the most effective tool for finding jobs. Additionally, 60.2% of respondents say the online education platforms and digital education technologies have helped them pursue an education and 76.5% have used the internet to improve their skills in changing labor markets. Entrepreneurs, the under-employed and people in low-income countries are limited by the lack of quality connectivity which will further handicap them.

The survey found that use of the internet had overwhelmingly positive benefits – particularly for improving livelihoods. The implications of the low-income countries falling behind, with regards to connectivity are very troubling. This lack of quality connection, will further limit the ability of low and lower middle-income countries to improve their economies, in relation to their neighbors.

Closing the digital divide and promoting internet inclusion will demand collaboration between governments, the private sector, academics, technologists and civil society. Governments are also important and can help on the supply side by implementing policies that enable new technologies, new business models and investment in high-quality networks; and on the demand side, by facilitating affordability and helping foster e-Gov, public health and education applications.

With enabling policies in place, the private sector can continue to extend internet infrastructure and explore new technologies and applications that drive demand and give more people access to the benefits of the internet.

No single stakeholder or group can achieve internet inclusion alone. It is critical that we all work together and leverage our strengths and expertise to achieve our goal of bringing more people online.