The world took yet another small step towards becoming fully connected in 2015. An estimated 3.2 billion people are now online, up from 3 billion in 2014, according to a new report published by Facebook. But this means that a further 4.1 billion people, over half of the world's population, are without any internet connection at all.
The ITU's Connect 2020 Agenda calls for at least 50% of developing nations' households to have internet access by 2020 and to reduce the cost and discrimination which is keeping many from being online. Without a coordinated approach to connectivity, however, the ITU estimates that nearly 3 billion people will remain offline in 2020, almost all of them in developing nations.
In their study of global connectivity, Facebook identified four main barriers which continue to keep the ITU's ambitious plan out of reach, and highlights the ways we can overcome these challenges. As the report points out: "These barriers do not arise in isolation, nor can they be addressed in isolation. They function as a cluster, each one affecting the others."
Availability of the internet depends on people's ability to access the web through a number of different means including wired, wireless or satellite connections. Despite the various ways of obtaining an internet connection, coverage remains limited for many.
Mobile network connections have aided in closing the availability gap. As much as 96% of the world's population does, in theory, have some access to a 2G network, but this technology will only cover basic data connectivity. At least 1.6 billion people have no access to 3G or 4G at all.
Not surprisingly, the lack of better data access is largely economic.
Reliable service at a reasonable cost remains out of reach for many. Changing this has led to a chicken and egg scenario for service providers. In order to create a more reliable network, providers would have to invest in new and better infrastructure. There are also significant costs in maintaining a rural mobile network architecture. Such a significant investment would require a return that is at present unlikely. In addition to being relatively low income, the populations of these regions show a fairly low demand for online services, partially because they don't see what the internet could do to enrich their lives.
A remote connection site can cost twice or even three times what it does in urban areas, where return on investment would also be higher due to more demand.
Nevertheless, new and innovative solutions to these infrastructure challenges are on the rise. Traditionally, diesel generators were the primary source of electricity for mobile networks in areas where the 'grid' was unavailable. The plummeting cost of solar modules, down 75% since 2009, can help to offset this cost, especially if the price drops another projected 40% by the end of 2017.
The costly alternative of satellite technology is also being replaced with more creative solutions including drones, balloons, low/medium earth orbit satellites and high-throughput geostationary satellites.
Income remains a key barrier for many to accessing the internet. The price of data along with the cost of owning a device, a charger and other accessories is part of what is keeping people offline.
Facebook's report estimates that the cost of a 500 MB/month data plan remains financially inaccessible for 2 billion people. To developed nations, who consume almost three times as much on average, 500 MB/month might seem insufficient. That would account for only 17 websites, or 8 minutes of video per day.
Despite the wide gap in consumption between developing and developed nations, the cost of consumption is directly the opposite. On average, a person living in a developing country will spend just under 4% of their monthly income on internet expenses. People living in developed countries will spend half that amount. On the extreme ends of the spectrum, someone living in the UK will spend only half of their income on the internet while in Nigeria it can be as much as 7%.
Facebook estimates that around 500 million more people were able to access the internet in 2015 due to the rise in global incomes along with the falling prices of availability.
Ever-improving technology and steady improvements in global income will help to continue this trend, but innovative business models can also help to to accelerate this process.
In the Philippines, for example, mobile data is packaged in a way to accommodate the realities of daily life for the poor. By allowing those with near-poverty levels of income an alternative to traditional business models, more people are gaining access at a price they can afford.
While those in developed countries often think of the internet as a time killer, many in developing nations fail to see the relevance of getting online. In order to make the web relevant to them, it would need to prove useful, relatable and accessible.
Language remains the most identifiable problem with internet relevance globally. Only 10 languages make up 89% of the internet, with 56% of it in English.
Facebook is currently available in 139 languages, Google Translate in 103, Wikipedia 55.
But there are over 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. It is estimated that to reach 98% of the worlds population, the internet would need to accommodate 800 languages.
This linguistic divide has been breached, in part, by the expansion of secondary languages. For example, Wikipedia's 55 languages, of 100,000 articles or more, makes up the mother tongue of about 58% of the world's population. If people's secondary language is taken into account, that access to knowledge is expanded to 67%.
But asking populations to speak a second language can be disengaging and, at worst, outright offensive. A more collaborative and successful approach would be to drive content creation through the support of local language devices and software. This facilitation of content creation can lead to new linguistic ecosystems on the internet.
Take, for example, Tanzania, where 98% of the population speaks Swahili. When Facebook introduced its platform in Swahili, the number of users in Tanzania increased significantly. In Nigeria, which had a previously comparable number of users, there was barely any increase. This is most likely because Facebook has yet to introduce a local language solution in Nigeria.
Language is only one way to create and encourage relevance. When a population is offered content that relates to them directly, usage increases. The report points out that internet penetration in Myanmar was only 2% in 2012 but by 2015, coinciding with the highly covered elections, that had risen to 35%.
All three of these challenges can be overcome. We could one day see the internet available to virtually everyone in the world. But when that happens, will they be ready for it? A challenge exists to ensure that people have the skills, understanding and cultural/social acceptance of the internet.
While there is no concrete way to link existing data with 'internet literacy', some obvious challenges do exist.
The world's literacy rate, for example, will continue to hold back populations in India, Africa and the Middle East, regardless of their ability to access the internet.
Meanwhile, education as a whole remains a barrier. In a survey conducted by Facebook of 11 countries, over two thirds of those currently offline did not know what the internet is. In Nigeria, 75% of the unconnected had never heard of the word 'internet.'
Familiarity with the devices used to access the web also remains a challenge. Those already using the internet were far more likely to know how to use a computer than those who did not.
There is also a sobering gender gap that exists online. In developing countries, the parity between male and female internet users can be startling. In India, women are between 60 and 70% less likely to use the internet, while in sub-Saharan Africa the gender gap can range from 45 to 70%.
Numerous initiatives are, however, already underway to combat these inequalities. In some cases, finding a solution to common poverty problems and digital readiness go hand in hand. In Papua New Guinea, 35% of the population is illiterate. A project called SMS Story intends to change this by not only teaching people to read, but by doing so with text messages.
In Pakistan, there are currently over 120 e-villages training over 3,000 girls computer skills. That project is to be expanded to reach as many as 20,000 girls in the near future.
Getting to 2020
The ITU's goals are not unrealistic, but they do require continued action on the part of many stakeholders. If so many challenges are to be met in the next few years, it will require the efforts of private industry, governments, non-profits and citizen-led initiatives to achieve a common goal. Through the sharing, application and review of best practices, it is possible to imagine a truly connected world.