OPINION | Think we've gone digital? Not so fast - nearly 3 billion people have been left behind

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Nearly 40% of the world's population has yet to go online.
Nearly 40% of the world's population has yet to go online.
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As of December 2021, an estimated 2.9 billion people - nearly 40% of the world's population - have never used the internet, writes Warren Thomas.

In a global economy where digital literacy means the difference between being employed or not, and being educated or not, internet connection has become a staple need. The United Nations defines being online as "having used the internet from any device in any location at least once in the past three months". I have been on the internet multiple times in the last three hours alone, in the course of doing my job, to connect with colleagues, and to drive innovation.

The Covid-19 crisis accelerated the uptake of internet use by more than 10% in the first year of the pandemic. In 2020 the number of people who went online was 4.9 billion, compared to 4.1 billion in 2019. This uptake was the most significant increase in users for a decade. However, hundreds of millions of those users connected infrequently had to share devices to connect, or faced frustratingly slow connection speeds.

According to the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it is disheartening to realise that as of December 2021, an estimated 2.9 billion people have never used the internet. Placing that into perspective, an estimated 37% of the world’s population has never experienced the joy of connecting to a digital world. Furthermore, 96% of that population live in developing countries and receive little to no affordable and quality Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

Almost three-quarters of people have never used the internet in the 46 least developed countries, and internet connection in poorer nations is often prohibitively costly. The UN target for affordable internet is two percent of monthly income for one gigabyte of data. It's determined that this cost will provide basic internet access for most. However, in reality, only the wealthiest 20 percent of South Africans can afford that. For the poorest 60 per cent, basic internet access costs between six percent and 21 percent of their monthly income. In nations like Mozambique - one of the most impoverished African countries - internet access is not affordable for almost the whole region.

Being connected produces opportunities for education, employment, and dignity. But how can users tap into these advantages if they cannot access them due to no internet? Poverty, lack of digital literacy and poor infrastructure like no electricity are haphazard causes for the widening of the digital divide. As the divide grows, children become disillusioned as critical skills for participation in a digital economy are not provided, and they fall further behind. 

Poorer nations of the world will be excluded from online engagement for decades without significant interventions to bolster education, including online literacy and investment in broadband infrastructure.

Adrian Lovett, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, said in an article published by The Guardian,

"If you are not connected when the majority of your fellow citizens in the world are, you become marginalised in a way that could be more dire and more challenging than perhaps anything we've seen before".

Countries remaining offline are primarily rural, on the outskirts of their urban counterparts, where installation costs of mobile internet towers can be five times higher. Higher costs get intensified when the communities are poorer and lack education. Telecom companies need substantial incentives to get these population groups connected. There is a will, but seemingly, no way.

The developed world is so far ahead with no signs of slowing down as the advancement of technology intensifies, leaving the still-developing world in its digital dust. 

Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet said in the same article:

"Given the recent declining levels of growth in internet use and high costs of internet access to significant levels of low-income populations around the world, it is possible that we will only reach universal access in 2050 or later".

That's a generation of people away and 30 years away from the initial UN goal of affordable internet access for all being reached by 2020.

Access and affordability are overshadowed only by the lack of education in developing nations. Too many children in sub-Saharan Africa, aged six to 11, are not in primary school (UNESCO,2019). However, coding skills, robotics and other 4IR subjects are essential to secure future employment opportunities. Online learning has become a cornerstone in the advancement of securing a livelihood. But if education is absent, what will they do with the internet once it is available?

When the government and private companies pursue investment in broadband infrastructure, it must include training and education. Suppose people can't read and write to lay the foundations of digital understanding through STEM and TVET curricula. In that case, they won't benefit from an internet connection.

There is also the concern of marginalising population groups from accessing goods and services as businesses move to an online environment. Other out-of-reach services include online public debates, social groups and digital government services such as filing taxes and applying for ID cards. 

Internet access boosts economic growth

A 2012 report from the University of California, Berkeley ascertained that a 10 per cent rise in broadband access led to a 1.35 percent increase in GDP in developing countries. Similarly, a report by Deloitte found that a doubling in mobile data usage boosted GDP per capita by half a percentage point.

In October 2018, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC found that citizens in six sub-Saharan countries experienced an array of advantages by being online. Data gathered from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania reported that 79 per cent of respondents felt adequate internet access improved education. More than 50 per cent thought it benefited the economy, politics and personal relationships.

These reports illustrate that internet connection provides a higher quality of life, not just a hub for entertainment. It breaks down barriers, boosts economies, builds relationships, educates and uplifts those excluded from developing a digital footprint. Internet connectivity is shaping the careers of the future and providing a gateway to access even the most basic needs. It invites previously excluded population groups into conversations and provides much-needed services like in the fintech sector. 

Internet connection needs increased attention, investment and innovative solutions to reach our near- and far-off corners of the world. Cutting-edge solutions like satellite constellations or high-altitude balloons could make massive progress toward the UN's sustainability goal. As the divide continues to grow, we have a moral obligation not to leave anyone disconnected and to make sure this silver bullet hits its mark.

Thomas is Chief Marketing Officer at RocketNet. Views are his own. 

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