More than 4 billion people, mostly in developing countries, still don’t have access to the internet. This means that over half of the world’s population is missing out on the life-changing benefits of connectivity, from financial services to health and education, being brought about by the increasing pace of innovation known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution,

 Twenty countries are home to three-quarters of the 4.3 billion internet non-users worldwide
Image: World Economic Forum

Universal, affordable internet access is part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and governments, companies, local and international organizations, and members of civil society are working to get more people online. However, as a new report from the World Economic Forum explains, the problem is “big, complex and multidimensional”.

What’s behind the digital divide?

There are four main reasons that so many people are still offline, according to Forum’s Internet for All report.

 Approaching the problem through careful segmentation
Image: World Economic Forum

Infrastructure: One reason many people aren't logging on is simply that a good, fast connection is not available – 31% of the global population do not have 3G coverage, while 15% have no electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa some 600 million people (almost two thirds of the region's population) do not have regular electricity, and this applies to nearly a quarter of people living in South Asia.

Affordability: The cost of devices and connectivity is another factor preventing many people from accessing the internet, especially the 13% of the world population living below the poverty line. Broadband is only affordable for 100% of the population in just 29 countries.

Skills, awareness and cultural acceptance: A key barrier for some is education – 15% of adults globally are considered illiterate. There are also cultural issues, with women up to 50% less likely to be using the internet than men.

Local adoption and use: The vast majority (80%) of online content is only available in 10 languages, which only about 3 billion people speak as their first language.

 Mobile-broadband prices, developed and developing countries and LDCs, 2013-2014
Image: World Bank

What can we do about it?

The World Economic Forum is urging governments to introduce policies that aim to improve infrastructure coverage and quality, provide financial assistance to those who cannot afford to get online, and set up public Wi-Fi.

The report also highlights how a lack of skills and awareness of the internet’s value are barriers. It recommends getting ICT onto the curriculum in schools and providing training to communities and argues that tackling the global digital divide will require public-private collaboration.

The Forum’s Internet for All initiative provides a framework for both governments and businesses to work towards. The programme is being implemented in an initial project in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia, where 75 million people (67% of the total population in these countries) currently have no access to the internet.

Alex Wong, Head of Global Challenge Partnerships and Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum, said: “The internet has become a pervasive, fundamental part of daily life. But low internet penetration significantly impacts a country’s ability to participate in the digital economy, which is becoming an increasingly important priority for development as Africa, like the rest of the world, enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

He added: “We know it is possible to break down the digital divide for the 55% of the world’s population that is still not connected: now it’s time for governments, businesses and civil society to make it happen.”

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