Thanks to the growth of the mobile internet, there are now three numbers that are relevant to the global digital divide – 94, 50 and 36. All three are amazing, and underlie a new way to approach the digital divide that focuses on availability, affordability and relevance.

  • 94% of the world’s population can receive a mobile telephone signal, which represents growth that almost no one could have predicted 15 years ago.
  • 50% of the world’s population can receive a mobile internet signal, because a mobile network can be upgraded to offer internet with far less investment than building the original network.
  • 36% of the population has subscribed to the mobile internet, from a standing start just six or seven years ago, thanks to the widespread availability of and access to smartphones with millions of apps.

These numbers mask significant regional variation, of course. In developed Asia Pacific, 99% of the population has a 3G signal, and 109% have subscribed (some people have multiple subscriptions). On the other hand, in sub-Saharan Africa, where 82% of the population has a mobile signal, 35% have a 3G signal, and so far only 11% have subscribed to mobile internet.

The common thread in all regions is that availability of the internet is no longer the limiting factor – mobile internet is always available to more than those who have adopted it, and can grow relatively easily to cover the entire mobile network if needed.

The key question should be why potential users who could access a service have not done so. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, why have only a third of those who could access 3G taken advantage of its availability?

The answer has two parts. First, of course, affordability is a key issue: in some countries, broadband still costs 10% or more of average monthly income and is thus out of range for most. Second, though, is relevance. Is there content available in the local language? Is it of interest? Useful? If the answer to these questions is no, then chances are many who could afford internet access will spend their time and money elsewhere.

In many countries, relevance is now the most significant issue. For instance, in a recent survey in Brazil, subjects were asked to give one or more reason why they had not used the internet. Of the respondents, 25% indicated availability as a reason; 26% indicated cost; while 70% indicated it was a “lack of need or interest”.

So what can be done to help regions clear these final barriers and fully embrace the internet and its advantages?

Of course, everyone would benefit from lower costs – not just those who aren’t online today – and governments can help by removing any barriers to connectivity, such as high costs for deploying infrastructure, and high taxes on equipment, devices and services that act to depress demand.

However, at least as importantly, increasing the amount of content in the local language, with relevance to local needs, is critical. Governments can help promote content creation by developing their own mobile services, hosting them locally and promoting capacity-building to support these activities. Governments can also encourage the private creation of content by removing vague or restrictive laws with respect to content and liability.

As we collectively celebrate the amazing numbers already achieved by the mobile internet in closing the digital divide, we should also work hard together to make sure the remaining challenges are met so that existing and new users enjoy a mobile internet that delivers the hope and promise the internet can bring to everyone.

For a broader discussion of these issues, please check out the Internet Society’s Global Internet Report 2015, which delves deeper into mobile’s impact on the digital divide and a host of other issues related to the mobile internet, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2015.

Have you read?
How is mobile changing the world economy?
Which countries have more internet connections than people?
How better connectivity can transform Africa’s economies

Author: Michael Kende, Chief Economist, Internet Society

Image: A smartphone apparatus is used for eye examinations at a temporary clinic west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis.