The growth of the internet is one of the defining characteristics of the modern age. But despite the rapid rise in the number of people online, there are still significant differences between the richest countries and the rest of the world.

The growing online population

Technology adoption is a key indicator of economic development and while there has been a noticeable rise in the percentage of people in the emerging and developing nations that say that they use the internet and own a smartphone, these nations still lag significantly behind.

The Pew Research Centre found that in 2013, a median of 45% across 21 emerging and developing countries reported using the internet at least occasionally or owning a smartphone. In 2015, that figure rose to 54%, with much of that increase coming from large emerging economies such as Malaysia, Brazil and China.

By comparison, a median of 87% use the internet across 11 advanced economies surveyed in 2015. This represents a 33-percentage-point gap compared with emerging and developing nations.

The device divide

When it came to smartphone ownership, the digital divide between less advanced economies and developed economies was 31 points in 2015.

But smartphone ownership rates in emerging and developing nations are rising at an extraordinary rate, climbing from a median of 21% in 2013 to 37% in 2015. That’s nearly a doubling of the smartphone penetration rate during that two year period.

And overwhelming majorities in almost every nation surveyed report owning some form of mobile device, even if they are not considered smartphones.

Local differences

The World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2015 ranked 143 countries by their information and communication technologies (ICT). The research highlighted sharp contrasts between different countries within the same region.

The divide within the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan region is the largest. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar continue to stand out as leaders in the region and Morocco is the country that improved the most. At the other end of the scale, Mauritania remains the region’s worst-performing country.

Emerging Asia offers strong contrasts, too. While there are some notable success stories such as Malaysia, others like Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Thailand lag a significant way behind. Two-thirds of the countries from the region appear in the bottom half of the rankings.

China is stable in 62nd position, while India fell, dropping six places to 89th in the table.

Unlocking prosperity

The Forum’s report emphasises how digital technology contributes to shared prosperity by creating economic opportunities and fostering social and political inclusion.

Countries need developed ICT systems to allow new models of collaboration, increase efficiency and boost productivity.

The technology enables access to basic services, including financial services, health and education. It also allows for a more direct interaction between populations and governments; an improved government online presence can significantly increase the efficiency of public administration.

Closing the digital divide is vital for development and economic growth. Many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will only be achieved with widespread digital inclusion to ensure economic growth, health and education accessibility and shared economic prosperity.

The gap is closing but it still has a long way to go.