Progress Stalling on Closing the Digital Divide: Insights From the 2019 Inclusive Internet Index

By Robert Pepper, Head of Global Connectivity Policy and Planning

Connectivity lets people talk with friends and family, learn new things, start new businesses and find employment. But there are still about 3.8 billion people around the world without fast and reliable internet access. Facebook Connectivity is working with network operators, equipment manufacturers and other partners to develop technologies and introduce new initiatives to change that.

For the past three years, Facebook has commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to create a comprehensive Inclusive Internet Index (3i) that assesses a country’s internet inclusion across four categories: availability, affordability, relevance and readiness. This year, the Index was expanded to include 100 countries, representing 94% of the world’s population and 96% of global GDP. In addition, the 3i study is again accompanied by a Value of the Internet Survey, which polled 5,069 respondents from 99 countries to gauge perceptions on how internet use impacts people’s livelihood.

Mixed Progress

Like last year’s index, which concluded that there was cause for optimism but that we were still far from achieving full internet inclusivity, this year’s 3i study shows mixed progress.

This year, the study revealed stalled progress on closing the digital divide. In contrast to previous years, the gap between the lowest income countries and all others grew. Although the overall gap between those with access to the internet and those without narrowed – because of progress on access, quality of coverage, and affordability – the lowest income countries fell behind because they improved at a slower rate than other countries and much slower than last year. Internet connections in low income countries increased by only 0.8% compared to 65.1% last year.

If this stalling of progress is a one year blip, that’s bad enough. If it is the beginning of a trend, that would be an alarming shift that would require greater focus and cooperation among all the players, including the private sector and policymakers. Either way, it reinforces the importance of our work at Facebook to partner with all parts of the technology and mobile ecosystem to increase availability to an affordable internet.

On the positive side, this year’s 3i study found that inclusion for women and those with disabilities has improved, with low-income and lower-middle-income countries driving progress. However, affordability is declining relative to monthly income in many countries, disproportionately affecting women and people in low-income countries, all of whom are more reliant on mobile as their primary means of accessing the internet.

This year’s index and survey found:

Steady overall progress but slow growth of connectivity in low-income countries: While the percentage of households connected to the internet globally increased, on average, from 53.1% to 54.8%, the rate of growth in internet connections slowed to 2.9% in 2019 from 7.7% in 2018. The largest year-over-year increases were in Cameroon (106.7%), Kenya (34.3%) and Kuwait (28.3%). Mobile internet services improved, but many low-income countries are seeing slow progress: In some countries, fixed-line internet access is too expensive or inaccessible — that’s why mobile services are critical. This year’s 3i reveals that, while lower-middle-income countries had a significant 66% improvement in 4G coverage, low-income countries saw a moderate 22% improvement. . Web accessibility standards have improved globally, led by low- and lower-middle-income countries: Accessibility issues prevented many people with disabilities from accessing the internet. However, the accessibility divide, as measured by W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) global standard, has been narrowing. The average web accessibility score improved by 9.7% compared with 2018. In low- and lower-middle-income countries, the score improved by 29.4% and 23.5%, respectively. Low- and lower-middle-income countries narrowed gender gap: Men are more likely to have internet access than women in 84% of the indexed countries. However, in a positive trend in 2018, low- and lower-middle-income countries drove progress to narrow the gender gap. While there remains much to be done, there are demonstrable benefits from comprehensive female e-inclusion policies, digital skills programs, and targets for women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The UK, Namibia, and Ireland, followed by Austria, Chile, and South Africa, are among the top performers of the year, all with female digital skills training plans. Despite privacy concerns, the internet is crucial for employment and improving livelihood: Carrying over from last year’s findings, more than half (52.2%) of respondents say they are not confident about their online privacy. Yet the majority of respondents (74.4%) think the internet has been the most effective tool for finding jobs. Additionally, 60.2% of respondents say the online education platforms and digital education technologies have helped them pursue an education and 76.5% have used the internet to improve their skills in changing labor markets. Entrepreneurs, the under-employed and people in low-income countries are limited by the lack of quality connectivity which will further handicap them.

Because the Value of the Internet Survey found overwhelmingly positive benefits from using the internet, particularly for improving livelihood, implications of the lowest income countries falling behind in terms of connectivity are particularly troubling. The lack of quality connectivity will further handicap low and lower middle-income countries’ ability to improve their economies relative to their neighbors.

Preventing a digital divide and closing the remaining gaps in internet inclusion will require collaboration between governments, the private sector, academics, technologists and civil society. Governments can help on the supply side with policies enabling new technologies, new business models and investment in high quality networks; and on the demand side, by facilitating affordability and helping foster eGov, public health and education applications. With enabling policies in place, the private sector can continue to extend internet infrastructure and explore new technologies and applications that drive demand and give more people access to the benefits of the internet.

No single stakeholder or group can achieve internet inclusion alone. Rather, we all must work together, leveraging our relative strengths and expertise to achieve our goal of bringing more people online.

The full Inclusive Internet Index can be accessed at http://theinclusiveinternet.eiu.com.

You can read more about Facebook’s connectivity efforts and our announcements at Mobile World Congress here.

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