• Some of Europe’s smallest territories have the fastest internet access, with Liechtenstein coming out top, according to a new report.
  • But there is a growing digital divide when it comes to high-speed broadband – not only between developed and developing nations.
  • More than 229 megabits per second lie between the top and the bottom of the league table.
  • Investments in infrastructure are needed across the board to reach the kind of internet coverage and speed needed to further economic growth.

What would we have done without high-speed internet when the world shifted to home working?

Digital access was able to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, according to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, but the world’s response to the virus also exposed significant gaps. These were not only to be found in low- and middle-income countries – but also in high-income economies, according to Accelerating Digital Inclusion in the New Normal.

The 2020 Worldwide Broadband Speed League from Cable.co.uk compares broadband download speeds in 221 places worldwide, underscoring these trends. It reveals that while broadband speeds are continuing to accelerate, there is a growing digital divide when it comes to access to the fastest speeds.

More than 229 megabits per second (Mbps) lie between the top and the bottom of the league table, and the average global download speed is just 24.8Mbps.

Northern African countries together had the lowest average broadband speed (3.80Mbps), while Western European countries have access to the highest mean speeds as a region (81.19Mbps).

Now in its fourth year, the study also finds that download speeds in the places with the fastest speeds are continuing to expand rapidly, while the slowest places for internet connectivity are stagnating.

internet connectivity worldwide speeds
The 10 places with the fastest internet speeds, according to data from 2020.
Image: World Economic Forum

Small economic hubs offer the fastest speed

Of the top 10 places with the highest internet speeds in the world, eight are in Western Europe, with Hong Kong SAR, China, as the only non-European economy in eighth place and Hungary in tenth.

Small economic and financial hubs in Western Europe dominate the top of the list, with Liechtenstein, Jersey and Andorra leading the table and Gibraltar and Luxembourg making up the top five.

Their advantage on other, bigger economies may be that upgrading to high-speed full-fibre connectivity is easier the smaller the territory, Cable.co.uk suggests.

Some of Europe’s heavyweights, however, are found further down the list: France comes in at number 36, Germany at 42 and the UK is in 47th place.

Similarly, the United States only ranked 20th, the Russian Federation 64th and China came in 200th place.

Struggling to keep pace

The fact that average broadband speeds are rising is largely driven by speeds in the fastest placed continuing to accelerate. At the other end of the spectrum, those with the slowest download speeds are increasingly left behind.

In 2019, the five slowest places were 125 times slower than the five fastest. In 2020, they were 276 times slower.

Liechtenstein achieved its top rating with a mean download speed of 229.98Mbps, while at the other end of the scale, South Sudan reached just 0.58Mbps.

Among the bottom 10 of the ranking, five places are in sub-Saharan Africa, but as regions go, Northern Africa has the slowest average connection speed, at only 3.8Mbps.

Investments needed throughout

The World Economic Forum has pointed out that major focus is needed to increase fixed network coverage, penetration and speeds in many middle- and low-income countries – and also some high-income countries where a significant share of subscribers are still underserved.

Mobile 5G connectivity might plug some of these gaps, but in low- and middle-income countries, device ownership and broadband affordability are also an issue.

In a 2016 study, the World Bank projected that a 10% increase in fixed broadband penetration would increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed economies and 1.38% in developing ones. Therefore public and private investment in infrastructure will be critical, as will a focus on more affordable devices and broadband subscriptions.

The Forum sees collaboration as a key enabler for levelling the playing field in broadband access within and between countries, living up to the ambition to ‘build back better’ based on the learnings from COVID-19.