While the internet has grown phenomenally, the irony is, a huge portion of the global population still isn’t connected to the internet.
To say that the internet world is massive would be an understatement. Over the past decades, the internet has grown phenomenally. The irony is, a significant portion of the global population still isn’t connected to the internet. This creates a ‘digital divide’ – a long-standing issue and a hot topic of discussion at major global forums. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the urgency for countries –government, private companies, academia and citizens – to address the looming gap.
As of January 2021, there were over 4.9 billion active internet users across the world and the number is steadily rising. However, there are still over 2.9 billion people with no internet access. Take India for example. Despite having the second largest online market in the world, 50% of its population doesn’t have internet access.
And here lies the paradox – while the pandemic expedited massive digital transformation, reimagining the way we work, learn and live, it also exposed that billions of people remain without the internet.
The Haves and the Have Nots
According to a report by Datareportal, the number of internet users increases at an average rate of 8.2% a year. After the radio was invented, it took 38 years to reach 50 million users. It took 75 years for the telephone to do the same. However, global internet managed to reach 50 million users in just four years, albeit spreading unevenly, creating wide gap between those who have and those who do not have access to the Web.
As of January 2021, Denmark, Iceland, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar have the highest internet penetration rate of any country in the world. Between 98% and 99% of the population of these countries has internet access.
Asia reportedly has the largest number of internet users at just about 2 billion. Europe takes second spot with less than half of this number, boasting about 705 million internet users. China boasts of 854 million active users, followed by India and 560 million users, while the USA takes third place with 292 million users.
A report by World Economic Forum highlights that India has the highest number of people disconnected from the web despite having the second largest online market in the world. That being said, 50% of the country’s population still doesn’t have internet access. In contrast only 14% of the U.S. population remains disconnected to the web. So clearly, India has a lot of untapped potential.
Again in China over 582 million people are not connected to the internet. This is partly because of 39% of the country’s population lives in rural areas. Moreover, the gap in internet access between rural and urban China is significant. This was made apparent during China’s recent switch to online learning in response to the pandemic. While one-third of elementary school children living in rural areas weren’t able to access their online classes, only 5% of urban dwellers weren’t able to log on, the report said.
However, what’s noticeable is that not everyone has access to the web even in some of the world’s biggest economies. Even places like the U.S. struggle to provide internet access to remote or rugged rural areas. According to a Pew Research Center study, there are 33 million Americans (10%) who are currently offline. Those who have access to internet connectivity, computers, mobile devices, and other digital assets can more easily build the skills needed for careers in the modern era. Naturally, those who do not have this same access are at a clear disadvantage.
Of the top countries that are disconnected from the web, political factor plays a key role, as in the case of North Korea, where only a select few people can access the Internet. Citizens are restricted from using the global internet but have access to a domestic intranet.
Other reasons are financial, which is the case in South Sudan. The country has struggled with civil conflict, which has caused widespread poverty throughout the nation and also stifled infrastructural development, with only 2% of the country having access to electricity as of 2020, which explains why so few people have access to the web.
Also, the fact that there is a lack of local content is evident from the fact that the most popular language by far on the internet is English. According to a Statista report, over 25.3% of the internet is in English, 19.8% is in Chinese, and 8% is in Spanish. This indeed is an eye opener for content services companies to expedite their localization and personalization efforts.
Is the gap closing?
Although there’s a long and dwindling road ahead, the gap is closing. And previously untapped markets are seeing significant growth. For example, Africa has seen a massive spike of internet users in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2019 and 2020, where the country’s number of internet users increased by 9 million which constitutes a 122% growth. This has been facilitated by non-profit organizations and companies like Facebook that invested heavily in the development of the continent’s internet connectivity.
India has also seen significant growth between 2019 and 2020; the number of internet users in the country grew by 128 million. The digital India push is further acting as a catalyst to close this gap, even though a lot remains to be done.
Experts believe, by investing in emerging technologies like 5G, governments and the private sector can come together to address the inequities that exists in communities and create meaningful change to ensure that all citizens have access to the technology they need for work and school. While internet advancements like 5G are happening in certain regions, there’s still a long way to go before we reach global connectivity.