Affordable broadband is a vital driver of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. Moreover, ICTs have been recognized as a means of implementation for the soon to be agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet it is unlikely that their potential can be fully realized while inequalities in access to and the availability of broadband persist between developed and developing countries. Is the digital divide still with us, and will it be bridged anytime soon? This year’s State of Broadband 2015 report finds mixed messages.
The good news is that mobile phone subscriptions worldwide will exceed seven billion this year, but the total number of unique mobile subscribers lies between 3.7 and 5 billion people (depending on the source), leading some observers to suggest that the digital divide may soon be bridged via mobile telephony. Mobile telephony is not (yet) equivalent to mobile broadband – only around 40 per cent of mobile subscriptions are currently associated with a smartphone. Mobile broadband subscriptions continue to grow in excess of 25 per cent per year for the last three years running, while overall growth in mobile cellular subscriptions has fallen sharply.
Yet inequalities in Internet access remain stubbornly persistent: 57 per cent of the world’s population (4.2 billion people) do not have regular Internet access, some 90 per cent of whom live in the developing world, while less than 10 per cent of the population is online in Least Developed Countries (LDCs). More alarmingly, the overall growth rates for Internet access has also fallen: growth in total global Internet users has slowed to 8.1 per cent, down from around 8.5 per cent for the previous two years, and the milestone of 4 billion Internet users is unlikely to be achieved before 2020 at the earliest.
Broadband is especially important in Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) given the role that broadband can play in helping integrate economies into the global economy, increasing employment opportunities and supporting key public services such as education and healthcare. So innovative solutions become even more important in addressing the lack of access in remote and rural areas to reach underserved areas and promote digital inclusion for all.
On the supply side, networks are being extended beyond major urban centres to reach communities in more rural, isolated and remote areas, and the report finds evidence of the different cost curves involved in network deployment for greater – or full – population and household coverage. On the demand side, connecting more people must be accompanied by investments in linguistic diversity. Today, only an estimated 5 per cent of the world’s languages are represented online, and as much as 55 per cent of the top 10 million most popular websites are in English. However, the difficulties experienced by some users in understanding Latin text makes domain names difficult to recall, potentially reducing access to relevant content and useful services.
Broadband is a vital driver of sustainable development, and countries should adopt policies and strategies to make broadband available, affordable and accessible. Public and private institutions must work together to achieve broadband for all. An effective National Broadband Plan (NBP) can play a major role in coordinating these actions and promoting national broadband development. 148 countries have a plan in place by mid-2015, with a further six countries undertaking the planning process.
Since 2010, the Broadband Commission’s message has been clear. Investments in broadband must be accompanied by access to training and education in digital literacy to ensure that everyone is able to make the most of the opportunities offered by new technologies. Enabling everyone to access broadband services and content can help people achieve their full potential and provide answers to some of today’s most urgent challenges, including inequalities in opportunities and income.
This blog was adapted from the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development 2015 report, ‘The State of Broadband 2015: Broadband as a Foundation for Sustainable Development’. Read the full report here.
Pippa Biggs is Senior Policy Analyst and Content Coordinator of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. She is lead author and editor of the annual “State of Broadband” report charting the latest trends in the global broadband industry. Pippa has previously worked for the World Economic Forum, UNCTAD and Deloitte.