The digital gap continues to be a problem worldwide, but can be seen more sharply in emerging countries. India has overtaken the United States to become the world’s second-largest Internet market, with 333 million users, trailing China’s 721 million. However, according to a new report from the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, six nations – including China and India – together account for 55 percent of the total global population still offline, because of the sheer size of their populations.
While Internet access is approaching saturation in richer nations, connectivity is still not advancing fast enough to help bridge development gaps in areas like education and health care for those in poorer parts of the world, according to the 2016 edition of The State of Broadband report.
An estimated 3.9 billion people worldwide are not using the Internet. But the Commission’s new report estimates that, between them, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria account for 55 percent of all unconnected people, while 20 countries – including the US – account for a full 75 percent of those not using the Internet. These findings suggest that targeted efforts in just a few key markets could help enormously in redressing the gaping ‘digital divide’ between those who are online and those still offline.
Approximately 165 countries have now deployed ‘4G’ high-speed mobile networks. As smartphone penetration reaches near-saturation in the US, Europe and mature markets in Asia like Japan and Korea, India and Indonesia, in particular, are expected to drive future growth. India also recently overtook the US to become the world’s second-largest smartphone market, with an estimated 260 million mobile broadband subscriptions.
The Commission argues that if today’s near-universal basic mobile phone access could be converted to high-speed mobile broadband access, mobile phones could serve as a major accelerator of development, driving rapid progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
“There is a large body of economic evidence for the role of affordable broadband connectivity as a vital enabler of economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, who serves as co-Vice Chair of the Commission with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “The Sustainable Development Goals for education, gender equality, and infrastructure include bold targets for information and communication technology. The SDGs are achievable, but require urgent efforts and progress in the speed, degree, and equality of development. The Commission believes this can be realized through broadband.”
“Broadband technologies can be powerful development multipliers,” Director-General Bokova added, “but this requires combined investments in access and in skills and in education. This is about opening new paths to create and share knowledge. It is about enhancing freedom of expression and about widening learning opportunities, especially for girls and women. This is about developing content that is relevant, local and multilingual.”
Issued annually, The State of Broadband report is a unique global snapshot of broadband network access and affordability, with country-by-country data measuring broadband access against key advocacy targets set by the Commission in 2011.
The report confirms that according to latest ITU figures, by end 2016 3.5 billion people will be using the Internet, up from 3.2 billion last year and equating to 47 percent of the global population. Progress in the 48 UN-designated Least Developed Countries has been encouraging, with the Commission’s target of 15 percent of the LDC population online expected to be reached by the end of this year.
Download a full copy of the report.