When discussing something as large-scale as global connectivity, using data helps to gain perspective on words like “global” and “most”. To get everyone on the same page about what data and facts we are referencing when working on our mission to facilitate access to unrestricted communication, we wanted to share the most current numbers we found and our thoughts on them.
The big picture
Over 95% of the world is covered by mobile GSM 2G narrowband services. Even in the world’s poorest countries, labelled by the UN as Least Developed Countries (LDCs), 2G coverage is also around 90%. The spread of 2G has had a great impact on the accessibility of voice communication. It has also stimulated the development of applications such as mobile money and agricultural and health related text message services.
Virtually every country in the world has launched 3G mobile broadband networks. And about ⅔ of the world’s poorest countries have commercially deployed 4G networks. Impressive right? And in addition to all this mobile internet, an exciting space race for satellite broadband internet is under way with big companies with deep pockets sending more satellites up in space than ever thought possible. Universal internet coverage, be it mobile or satellite broadband and IoT, is within our grasp and will probably be realised in one way or another in the near future.
Where is the gap?
How is it then, that more than 40% of the world population is still offline? The short answer is: because global connectivity is not the endgame, unrestricted usage is. Don’t get me wrong, the spread of global connectivity is doing a lot of good. That is why the United Nations has universal access as one of their targets for 2020 within the Sustainable Development Goals framework. However, simply getting the connectivity everywhere will not solve the entire problem. Connectivity is a prerequisite for usage, not a guarantee.
Let’s go back to the numbers; looking at this data on a global level is misleading because even though 90% of LDCs is covered by 2G, 10% is not. And for this 10% progress is slow. Bringing connectivity to these rural and remote areas is expensive and difficult so most commercial telecom operators, the big driving forces in expanding mobile connectivity in LDCs more urban areas, will not expand their services to these areas.
High costs + low income of consumers in the region = no commercial incentive
Companies such as Hiber offer very interesting solutions to these areas with a low cost low power IoT satellite connectivity.
How internet factors in
For broadband internet, the balance is even more askew. Even though worldwide mobile 3G coverage is around 50%, the divide between developed countries and LDCs is 90% vs 20%. And for 4G networks, coverage is mainly limited to urban areas with more rural areas having no coverage at all. Fixed broadband penetration is extremely low in LDCs, e.g. Sub Saharan Africa has penetration rates of 1% or even lower. So there is a huge digital divide, especially when looking at broadband technology.
The affordability factor
A large obstacle preventing people from using the internet available to them is affordability, especially when looking at the world’s poorest countries. LDCs have the highest relative mobile broadband prices at about 14% of the average monthly income. In comparison, developed countries have prices at less than 5% of the average monthly income. In addition to the cost of usage of the internet, there are also the costs of adjacent necessities such as devices and electricity that are adding to the affordability problem.
Why is the internet relatively more expensive in LDCs than developed countries? The answer is a combination of reasons. Often, mobile internet markets are dominated by a small number of commercial operators so there is a lack of competition. Regulatory frameworks are slowing down innovations in spectrum usage that could drive prices down. Tax regulations and import taxes are also adding to the bill. Combine that with the fact that a lot of the telecom operators only offer prepaid data bundles, which are notoriously more expensive, and you have a recipe for a very expensive internet.
The role of education
A large part of the offline population is uneducated. Research shows that education levels are one of the most important indicators as to whether people use the internet. The reason for this is twofold: a lot of schools nowadays have access to the internet so children attending (secondary) schools are familiarized with using Information and Communication Technologies as well as being taught the necessary skills and knowledge for using the internet. In addition to this, awareness of the benefits of internet usage is more prevalent in people who have secondary school education. Also issues such as privacy, data usage and secure internet usage are more familiar to people having received secondary education.
The situation around global connectivity as well as the facts and figures that illustrate the situation are constantly changing. The good news is that the number of internet users worldwide is steadily climbing. When we first started thinking about our foundation in 2018, 48% of the world population was not using the internet. Today, that number is just above 40%. By keeping in mind the issues of affordability and education levels, the available connectivity will continue to grow.
These rising numbers are further aided by the attention given to the problem by the target set by the UN in their SDG framework. This results in cooperation by a lot of organisations, both commercial and non-profit, and governmental programs working to connect the world. We are eager to see what happens to these numbers in the future.