Access to internet is not a luxury, but a basic necessity. Image: Unsplash/Ales Nesetril
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- The EDISON Alliance says internet access is “foundational” to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
- Yet only 35% of people in developing nations have any form of online access.
- And even in developed nations like the United States, connectivity varies across demographics.
For some people in the developed world, life without access to the internet is unthinkable. But for almost 3 billion others, who mostly live in developing nations, living offline is a daily reality.
In a world where so much is done online, from banking to voting, being on the wrong side of the digital divide is to be cut off from health, education, social networks and opportunities to access services that half the world takes for granted.
“Internet access is not a luxury, but a basic necessity for economic and human development in both developed and developing countries,” the World Bank says.
As well as enabling access to education and healthcare, digital connectivity supports women's empowerment and environmental sustainability, and enhances government transparency and accountability, the Bank adds. It also develops communities, both local and global.
Only 35% of people in developing nations have access to the internet compared to over 80% in the developed world. The Bank says raising access to 75% would boost the developing world’s collective GDP by $2 trillion and create 140 million new jobs.
Tackling digital exclusion
The World Economic Forum founded the EDISON Alliance to accelerate action to tackle the issue of digital exclusion. Comprising 50 global leaders from public and private sectors, it is supporting action on health, education and financial inclusion.
The Alliance focuses on three factors that can help to increase internet usage across the world: affordability; usability and digital literacy; and accessibility – members work with governments to expand internet infrastructure in underserved areas.
Describing internet connection as “foundational” to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the Alliance’s aim is to foster affordable and accessible digital opportunities for everyone by 2025.
How is the World Economic Forum fostering a sustainable and inclusive digital economy?
Globally, internet usage was boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with usage growing 11% globally and by 15% in low and middle-income countries in 2020.
By the end of 2022, ITU says 5.3 billion people – two-thirds of the world’s population – had access to the internet. A significant part of this growth was driven by pandemic quarantine measures which forced people to use videoconferencing for work and education.
Global digital divide
At the same time, the pandemic highlighted the consequences of the digital divide. Despite a fall in the cost of internet connections globally, the hit to incomes from the pandemic made it harder for the least well-off to access remote healthcare and other public services.
Gender inequality in online access persists, although the situation has improved. The ITU’s data shows that, globally, 69% of men used the internet in 2022 compared to 64% of women – although the gender gap has been closed in developed nations and the Americas, it says.
But even in the United States there are marked variations among internet users. A quarter of Americans aged over 65, surveyed by Pew Research, said they had never been online compared to just 1% of 18-29 year olds.
Among people whose education stopped after high school, 14% were offline and women were marginally less likely than men to use the web. One in ten rural dwellers were offline compared to 6% in the suburbs and 5% in urban areas.
In Europe, 2.4% of people are unable to afford an internet connection, according to data from the European Union. But among those at risk of poverty, the digital exclusion rate was 7.6%, although both figures represented an improvement on 2021.
However the headline numbers mask wide variations across the EU, with internet connections out of reach financially for a quarter of the least well-off in Romania and a fifth in Bulgaria compared to just 1% in Denmark and Finland.
The cost of installing internet infrastructure led to the rapid growth of mobile internet connections in Africa, according to the UN. But although the pandemic boosted take-up, only around 29% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are connected to mobile internet.
Although one in five people live in an area with no mobile internet coverage – 210 million people – take-up in areas where it is available is still low at 53%, a figure industry body GSMA blames on the affordability of smartphones.
Overall internet connectivity in the East Asia Pacific region is higher with 70% of the population able to access online services, according to World Bank data. But adoption of mobile internet is lower at 49% although predicted to grow to almost two-thirds by 2030.
GSMA forecasts that the rollout of the 5G network will add $130 billion to the region’s GDP by 2030. And, in China, which has the world’s greatest number of fixed line internet users, according to Global Data, new connections increased 13% in 2021.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.