More than 90% of the world now can access the Internet through a 3G or higher quality network.
However, the latest data from ITU estimates that only 51.2% of the world’s population is actually using the Internet.
To account for the difference in Internet access and Internet use, it is critical to understand the barriers that prevent people from using the services that could be available to them.
At the ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Symposium (WTIS), the global forum for telecommunication and information and communication technology (ICT) measurements, several sessions explored the barriers keeping people offline and how better data can drive better policies to bring help the remaining 3.7 billion people into the information society so that they, too, can reap the benefits of the digital economy.
A combination of obstacles contribute to the persistent digital divide. These include: affordability of devices and services, lack of technical and digital skills, absence of relevant content or local language content, safety concerns, and others.
“When we ask the question about what the barriers are for phone ownership, affordability is something that comes up quite predominantly, as expected,” says Shazna Zuhyle, Research Manager LIRNEasia, a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank in Asia, adding that the lack of relevant content or services is also a key barrier. “If people don’t feel the need, then they’re not going to go as far as to jump across that next bridge” to owning a smartphone.
Affordability targets set out by the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development state that 1 gigabyte (1 GB) of data should amount to less than 2% of monthly income, named the “1 for 2 target.”
“Affordability is not the only issue, but one of the most important issues of getting people online…” — Danaraj Thaukur
To give a sense of what that represents, 1GB of data is approximately 1,000 emails or around 20 hours of Internet browsing. Currently, only 24 countries surveyed meet that affordability target, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, a global network of 80 organizations working on lowering prices so that Internet access becomes more affordable, especially in low-income countries.
“Affordability is not the only issue, but one of the most important issues of getting people online, and to do that from the alliance’s perspective is to focus on the policy,” said Danaraj Thaukur, Research Director of the Web Foundation. “In fact, in the [Affordability] Report in the last couple of years that we published, we’ve shown that improvements in policies by countries are also linked to improvements in affordability.”
But as he explained, better policies require better data.
ITU’s Measuring the Information Society Report is the key resource for global ICT data. It includes regional Internet penetration rates, sex-disaggregated data on Internet use and other key data. Policy-makers are making use of this global data to drive better policy decisions.
At the WTIS session “Smart data for smart ICT regulation and policy-making,” several successful country examples showed the value of data to close the digital divide.
In Costa Rica, the Superintendency of Telecommunications (SUTEL) is using data for smart regulation and to give the customers access to pricing models, plans and coverage to encourage wider adoption of Internet use.
“We are empowering the end user with information. We have a SUTEL interactive online tool where the consumer can access information. This can also be downloaded through the App store or Google Play,” explained Ana Lucrecia Segura, Economic Analysis Coordinator at SUTEL.
In Pakistan, ICT data shows the steady growth of adoption, but as Muhammad Sargana from the Pakistan Telecom Authority explained, more and better data is needed, especially when it comes to emerging technologies and in areas related to telecommunications including e-commerce and digital financial services (DFS).
“Unfortunately none of the other organizations [are collecting that data] despite… that e‑commerce is growing with the telecom services. So this is very important,” said Sargana. He also noted that data needs to be harmonized across regions. “We need the data across the world to improve our policy-making,” he said.
To improve the data available to policy-makers, Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, discussed various approaches to data collection and why better data will lead to better outcomes. This is especially true in the field of digital skills, as countries are now beginning to measure and track the level of proficiency of Internet users.
“Self-reporting is a cost efficient, quick way to get a sense of people’s skills… but there are other ways. Self-reporting does not always correlate with the actual skills,” she warned. So she suggests the use of standardized performance assessments of selected samples to check the validity of the results and to plan relevant digital skills training.
Elif Koksal-Oudot, an OECD economist, discussed what types of skills are needed to prosper in the digital society and stressed the need for internationally recognized data to compare skills globally.
As reported in the OECD Skills Outlook, improving ICT skills is a key factor to sustained economic growth and policy-makers are in need of quality data on skills and best practices for skills training.
To support these efforts, ITU’s Digital Skills Toolkit provides additional guidance for skill building. It was released as part of ITU and ILO’s effort to train 5 million youth with digital skills in support of the Decent Jobs for Youth Initiative.