Every year, my Bureau releases a concise global snapshot of the state of digital connectivity around the world.
I am proud that the quality and impartiality of our data, collected across a broad base of sources including official government statistics from household surveys and figures from telecommunications operators – combined with the skill of our in-house analysts – make ITU connectivity statistics the trusted global reference for United Nations agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs), national governments, academia, and private sector companies.
Our estimates and analysis form the basis of important strategic policies at the country level, such as National Broadband Plans, as well as at the regional level, such as the pan-regional connectivity initiatives we see in parts of Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
They are also invaluable to the work of our sister agencies in the UN system, and to NGOs working on the ground, now that digital technologies and network availability have become such vital factors in the delivery of development programmes spanning everything from education and health, to digital financial inclusion and humanitarian aid.
The 2019 edition of ITU’s Measuring digital development: Facts & figures shows Internet use continuing to grow worldwide – but also highlights some worrying trends, such as slowing growth in user numbers and a widening digital gender gap that is increasing the imbalance between men’s and women’s use of technology.
Mobile cellular networks now cover most of the planet, with 97% of the global population within reach of a mobile signal, and at least 93% of the global population able to access 3G or higher mobile broadband services.
But despite network availability, only 4.1 billion people – or just over 53% of the global population – are actually online. A staggering 3.6 billion remain totally unconnected from the transformational power of the Internet.
Women are lagging behind men in their ability to take advantage of the power of digital technologies in almost two thirds of countries worldwide.
Most alarmingly, in the world’s 47 Least Developed Countries, where online services and applications could potentially have the greatest impact in accelerating development and improving people’s lives, more than 80% of the population is still offline.
And even that dismaying figure often hides a much wider gap at the national level; ITU data show that in the most extreme case, a mere 2% of the population is using the Internet.
Of just as great concern this year is evidence that the digital gender gap is actually growing, despite concerted global efforts to redress this imbalance.
Our figures indicate that women are lagging behind men in their ability to take advantage of the power of digital technologies in almost two thirds of countries worldwide.
What’s more, that gap has been getting bigger in the world’s major developing regions – Africa, the Arab States and Asia-Pacific – with the widest gaps found in the most disadvantaged nations.
Smartphones and connected tablet devices are still way too costly for the estimated three billion people around the world subsisting on less than $2.50 a day.
Only in the emerging economies of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the highly-connected countries of Europe has the digital gender divide slowly been narrowing. And the Americas stands alone in achieving near-parity in men’s and women’s digital use.
Overall, the proportion of all women using the Internet globally is 48%, compared with 58% of all men. More men than women use the Internet in every single region of the world except the Americas – and I applaud the efforts of policy-makers in the nations of North and Latin America for their success in promoting digital equality.
Our figures also show that fewer women than men own a mobile phone – out of 85 countries surveyed, we found that a substantially higher proportion of men had mobiles than women in 61 countries, with near-parity or a gender divide in favour of women in just 24 nations.
Mobile telephony figures like these are particularly important, as mobile handsets and platforms now dominate as the world’s preferred means of getting online.
Our stats confirm this, showing that growth in the number of computers in homes worldwide has stalled, with only a tiny increase of less than one percentage point (to 49.7%) over last year’s figure.
Lack of meaningful and compelling content – and in a language they can use – keeps many offline.
Conversely, our global estimate on the number of homes with Internet access (57%) continues to show steady growth, driven by more and more people taking advantage of mobile broadband connectivity over smartphones and tablets.
Yet our figures also show that tens of millions of people are not accessing these mobile broadband services.
There is no single answer, but we can certainly point to some chronic barriers.
Affordability is one: service is still too expensive, and smartphones and connected tablet devices are still way too costly for the estimated three billion people around the world subsisting on less than $2.50 a day.
There are other impediments, too. Tens of millions of people lack the digital skills to make use of online platforms. Lack of meaningful and compelling content – and in a language they can use – keeps many offline.
And we mustn’t lose sight of cultural considerations that might mean that people are wary of trusting online platforms, or that only certain members of a household are empowered with digital access.
As ITU’s Director of Telecommunication Development, connecting those still unconnected is my top priority. ICTs are a powerful driver of global prosperity and social inclusion, and getting the world online is going to be absolutely vital to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
For the work of the BDT, this means urgently redoubling our efforts to target those most in need. As BDT Director I’ve been strengthening our digital skills training work, and reinforcing the guidance we offer through our expert reports on subjects ranging from financing broadband roll-out to regulatory strategies to help drive broadband services and uptake.
We’re also working harder on cultivating the multi-stakeholder collaboration that is going to be an essential element of all efforts to connect those still waiting in the wings for their chance to participate in online world.
As we strive to reach out to those still cut off from the huge potential of digital technologies, I believe our success needs to be measured in terms of the extent to which our actions are truly improving people’s lives.
ICTs are the vital development engine that will ensure we truly leave no-one behind.
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