Nowadays, everybody is conscious about the importance of being connected in this communication network called The Internet, and there is no day without we use the devices that allow us to have access to it.

Myself, for example, sitting in front of my laptop and writing these lines, I keep in mind that my intention to communicate with you is possible thanks to the Internet. However, more than a half of the global population live “disconnected” from the online world, which means a big difference in terms of development and opportunities, especially if we compare to those people who have access to this network. That contrast is known as the digital divide.

To be more accurate, the digital divide is defined as «the division that exists between people (communities, states, countries…) who use the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as a routine part of their life, and those who do not have access to them and, although they have, do not know how to use them.».

The importance of Internet is based on various aspects:

  • It is a communication channel that ignores geographic obstacles.
  • It allows for accessing and transmitting knowledge and information.
  • It speeds up many of the daily life actions (e-commerce, administrative processing…).
  • It provides new possibilities to interact with the world and allows for other ways of life.
  • It is a human right, according to the UN.

It seems evident that the advantages of being connected to the network can improve the opportunities, not only for individuals, but the society in general. For that reason, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) carries out a series of regular studies which show the annual world data about the ITC, and a classification of the countries depending on their Rate of Progress.

The purpose of this agency of the United Nations is to inform to the agents in both public and private sector to achieve «the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets. ITU, given the tremendous development of ICTs, has a key role to play in facilitating their attainment», said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, to finally fight against the digital divide.

ITU global review in 2016

The ITU reference report, known as Measuring the Information Society, indicates that two out of three people on the planet live in an area with mobile broadband coverage (3G or higher), and that telecommunication services are more affordable every year in economic terms. But despite these precedents, it also notes that about 3.9 billion people cannot use the Internet, which would mean 53% of the total population.

Mobile_network_coverage
1. Evolution of mobile network coverage. Source: ITU

The mobile coverage network reaches 95% of the people in the world, while the broadband network (3G or higher) reaches 84%, and 67% if we talk about rural population. On the other hand, the LTE or 4G network has expanded rapidly in the last three years and its area covers 53% of the world population (about 3.9 billion people).

The biggest difference is, of course, between Europe and Africa. While 75% of Africans do not use the Internet, only 21% of Europeans are offline. In other regions of the world, such as Asia and the Middle East, this percentage is around 58%.

2. Population without Internet (2016). Source: ITU

If we look at development parameters, the gap widens: only 15% of people in underdeveloped countries can make use of this resource, a significant figure compared to that of developing countries (40%), and outrageous if we do it with the fully developed countries (81%).

3. Percentage of people using the Internet. Source: ITU

We can even talk about a digital gender divide, as the rate of Internet access is higher for men than for women, in all regions of the world. Although this inequality is not as pronounced as in the previous examples (around 10%), the worrying thing is that there has been an increase in this difference between 2013 and 2016.

Facing the vision of a digitally divided world by the lack of opportunities, where bandwidth is unevenly distributed, the ITU and UNESCO founded the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in May 2010, «with the aim of boosting the importance of broadband in the international political agenda and expanding its access in each country as a key to accelerating progress towards national and international development goals.».

One of the objectives of this commission has to do with economic affordability, which looks for facilitate broadband services in developing countries through the regulation of market forces. The idea is to ensure that the cost of broadband services does not exceed 5% of the average monthly income of each country (GNI).

By early 2015, 111 countries (out of 160 with data available) had reached the Commission’s target. However, 22 developing countries keep prices above 20% of GNI per capita.

4. Evolution of the bandwidth and its distribution. Source: ITU

Yet, the bandwidth distribution remains uneven in the world. Africa has the lowest international connectivity in all regions, and this lack of connectivity acts as a limiting factor for the development of the poorest countries.

Classification of countries according to the ICT Development Index

The ITU Development Index (IDI) of the ITU is a figure that represents the level of access to ICTs, the use of this technology and their knowledge in the field by the countries. In this sense, South Korea ranks first in IDI, followed closely in the technological podium by Denmark and Iceland, respectively, in a total of 167 countries.

The top 30 are mostly occupied by European countries and other high-income countries, such as Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Japan, etc., and the countries that have improved the most in the last 5 years have been Costa Rica, Bahrain, Lebanon, Ghana, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Suriname, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Oman.

But the average values of IDI vary considerably across regions:

In Africa, only Mauritius exceeds the world average of 5.03 points, and 29 of the 37 African countries are in the bottom quarter of the IDI 2015 ranking, so reducing the digital divide in this region of the world makes it into a priority.

In America, the United States, Canada and Barbados occupy the top positions of the classification, with values higher than 7.5 points. However, the difference between these 3 countries and the rest of America is remarkable, even though there are 29 states in the upper half of the table. Costa Rica obtained a surprising improvement of 23 positions in the last study.

In the Middle East region, the top five countries in ICT development are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They are territories with high incomes and important oil producers, all with values above 6.5 points, which places them within the first 50 countries of the classification. However, we must note that the disparity between the GCC countries and the rest of Africa, located in the lower positions, continues to increase.

In the Pacific-Asian region we find the greatest diversity in the development of ICTs, indicating large differences in economic development. Six countries (mainly South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan) are ranked in the top 20, contrasting with four countries within the index’s ten least connected countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), that is, the former Soviet ex-republics (with the exception of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia and Turkmenistan), they occupy positions in the upper half of the IDI classification, a sample of a relative regional economic homogeneity. Belarus is the best positioned, and Kyrgyzstan the worst.

If we look at Europe, all countries, except Albania, surpass the average global IDI of 5.03 points and are in the upper half of the table, indicating the high levels of economic development in the region. In addition, the narrow gap between the minimum and maximum values of IDI in Europe shows a relative equity in the ICT sector and the economy as a whole.

Regarding the classification of IDI within Europe, we can emphasise that the first positions are occupied mostly by countries of Northern Europe and Western Europe; On the contrary, the lowest positions are occupied by the Mediterranean countries and those of Eastern Europe. Denmark (8.88 points) and Iceland (8.86) top the list, while the most important progress between 2010 and 2015 was achieved by the United Kingdom, from tenth to fourth in the global ranking.

Is the digital divide closing?

With all the above, there is no doubt that we live in a world with several realities, which differ greatly according to the geographical region of the world. In the area of telecommunications, I would dare to say that the digital divide is narrowing, and little by little the most disadvantaged countries will have access to much of the information circulating on the Internet.

Under this premise, opportunities to thrive in the world can greatly increase for underdeveloped countries, as access to free information and communication would provide them with the necessary tools.

However, theories aside, this technological advance must not hide the severe and real shortcomings of the inhabitants of the “disconnected” countries. It is much more urgent to provide sanitary infrastructures and favour the emergence of governments that advocate for peace and the distribution of the wealth of their territories, however small.

Closing the digital divide may help improve the well-being and quality of life of people who do not yet have access to the Internet, but first we should ensure that those people have a life to enjoy.

References:

Arturo Serrano, Evelio Martinez; “La Brecha Digital: Mitos y Realidades”, México, 2003, Editorial UABC, 175 páginas, ISBN 970-9051-89-X

www.broadbandcommission.org

ICT Facts and Figures 2016, ITU

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