The global internet divide is still wide and deep
- The gap between lower-income and higher-income countries is still widening
- Africa is the region with the lowest internet penetration
- Internet cost is 79% higher in Africa making it very expensive compared to Europe
- Lower-income countries work three times more to access three times slower broadband
The issue of the existence of a digital divide has been part of the talk for generations with the problem getting an input of money, time, and effort to rectify. Politicians have also voiced out their opinions and strategies with some self-serving individuals using the issue as a ticket winner. Organizations big and small including the United Nations have gone out of their way to attempt to define the concept, remedy it, and eventually bridge it.
At the onset of the internet era when it was simply a drop in big waters, the important move was making digital voice communication technologies available in geographies and to people who did not have access to them. Later on, the emphasis shifted to basic data communications.
The digital divide in this era goes beyond availability. Currently, 5.11 billion people representing 65.6% of the global population use the internet while over 30% of the world population do not have access to the internet or have limited access.
These “digitally dispossessed” individuals may end up with access but most often they find it irregular, unbalanced, and most times extremely expensive. Currently, 8.2% of the global population stays in a country with 50% or less internet penetration. Globally Africa makes up this percentage as it remains the region with the lowest internet penetration. In contrast, close to 90% of people in Europe have access to the internet.
A Netherlands VPN service company Surfshark did in-depth research and has just released a study on internet access for the global population. The study covers the disparity and anomalies found between countries with narrowband and broadband internet access. The report shows the harsh reality of the gap between developed and developing countries.
The five pillars supporting the Digital Quality of Life
Surfshark’s report is based on its 2022 Digital Quality of Life (DQL) Index which scrutinized the digital wellness of 92% of the global population across 177 countries. The interactive study uses five “pillars” to index countries. The pillars are factors that affect the quality of digital life for the overall population.
The five pillars include internet affordability, quality, electronic infrastructure, e-security, and e-government. The country-by-country ranking is based on data obtained from the five pillars. The study has revealed the huge discrepancy between countries in the level and cost of internet inequality.
One of the biggest things that stand out from the report is how internet users in low-income countries have to work three times longer (hours of labor) to have internet access than users in high-income countries. After all the hard labor, access is also limited as it is often three times slower when compared to internet connections in high-income nations. This inequality combined with global inflation that is affecting living costs all over the world, especially in developing countries is “taking people from lower-income countries on a downward spiral of economic hardship.”
The lead researcher for Surfshark’s report Agneska Sablovskaja said: “People who can’t access the internet are cut off from the digital opportunities that people from higher-income countries have. Without internet access, people can’t study or work online, and they can’t grow their economy with digital exports. The internet is also very slow in lower-income countries. Even if people from these countries can afford the internet, they still face limitations in what they can do. For instance, internet speeds in lower-income countries make it very difficult to make video calls.”
As noted in the report, the world’s poorest countries are the ones that continue to pay more for internet in poor quality while high-income countries continue to enjoy fast and affordable internet connectivity. The report has also made it clear that this inequality is unlikely to change anytime soon. Geography-wise, the report shows that Africa still has the biggest digital divide coupled with the lowest penetration of internet connectivity. As of October 2022, the internet on the continent is 83% less affordable when compared to the Far East and Oceania where the internet is most affordable in the whole world.
Another disturbing discovery by the report is that the gap has in the last few years increased by more than 20 percentage points. In general, 55% of people in Africa with access to the internet get it at a very slow speed while paying more while 90% of those in European countries get fast broadband access at low cost.
Ordinary it is countries like Mali and Ethiopia that are experiencing the worst of this internet inequality. The two countries are among the lowest low-income countries on the continent.
To afford 83Mbit/s broadband (which is slower than average internet speed) subscribers in low-income countries work 8 hours a week which is more working hours than subscribers in high-income nations.
The Surfshark report has shown that getting infrastructure to speed up internet connectivity is tremendously expensive in terms of money, people, and other necessary resources in these low-ranking countries. The report also points out that those countries with excellent and more modern broadband networks have bigger advantages over those who don’t.
For instance, 50% of the world’s ICT exports come from European countries and these come second to the Far East region in regards to internet affordability and quality. Asia on the other hand contributes 33% of ICT exports globally with most coming from India and China while Africa has the least ICT exports.
A point to note: the Surfshark report categories of “lower-income countries” was a combination of “low income” and “lower middle income” while the “higher-income countries” are a combination of “upper middle income” and “high income” based on 2021 data from the Worldbank.