The proportion of people online in the developing world expanded rapidly in the last decade – from 14.5% in 2008 to 45.3% in 2018 – but progress has recently slowed. Internet access in many parts of the world is still too slow and expensive to be effectively used. The cost of mobile data as a percent of income increased in nearly half the countries according to a recent study. Without affordable access, advances in digital technologies disproportionately benefit those already connected, contributing to greater inequality.
The people being left behind are typically those who can least afford it. Growth in new internet connections is slowest in the lowest-income countries. Rural areas continue to lag, as companies prioritize improving access in more densely populated areas which will offer a better return on investment.
The slowing progress in bringing more people online points to the urgent need for new approaches to building digital infrastructure, a complex task that requires better coordination among many stakeholders: governments, international organizations, communications service providers, makers of hardware and software, providers of digital services and content, civil society and the various groups that oversee protocols and standards on which digital networks operate.
As these actors cooperate, it also represents an important moment to re-emphasize and address the complex social, cultural, and economic factors that continue to marginalize many groups.
It is not an easy task: progress is slowing despite there being an active community of donors, experts, and other institutions committed to universal digital connectivity. The Alliance for Affordable Internet, for example, brings together companies, civil society organizations, and governments to conduct research and policy advocacy on driving down the cost to connect and achieve universal, affordable internet access. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lead the Broadband Commission, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)’s Project Connect maps schools using satellite data and artificial intelligence, and the World Bank provides loans and grants for connectivity projects.
There has also been considerable private sector activity in this arena. Loon, a project of Google’s parent company Alphabet, uses internet-enabled balloons – in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, they provided connectivity to 200,000 in Puerto Rico. Amazon, OneWeb, Telesat, Space Norway, and SpaceX are among companies considering connectivity solutions using low-earth orbit satellites.
Some countries, such as Indonesia, have set targets that treat internet connectivity as a national priority. While finance alone will not achieve universal internet access, it can help if invested wisely: some countries are generating financing from fees on existing communication network providers to help expand systems for those who are currently uncovered, for example through Universal Service Funds.
Advance market commitments deserve further consideration as a possible way to incentivize investment, as they have in other areas such as vaccine developments. They involve a commitment to pay for a future product or service once it exists; the commitment, in this case, could come from consortia of governments, international organizations, or others interested in enabling specific uses in areas such as health or education.
Many local groups are also working on small-scale community solutions: for example, a rural community of 6,000 people in Mankosi, South Africa, built a solar-powered “mesh network” in collaboration with a university.60 Such community projects are often not just about getting online but building skills and empowering locals to use technology for development and entrepreneurship.
Digital cooperation should increase coordination among the public and private entities working in this space and help tailor approaches to economic, cultural, and geographic contexts. Governments have an important role to play in creating a policy framework to enable private-sector enterprise, innovation, and cooperative, bottom-up networks.
Supporting Marginalized Groups and Measuring Inclusiveness
Even where getting online is possible and affordable, extra efforts are needed to empower groups that are discriminated against and excluded. For example, digital technologies are often not easily accessible for elderly people or those with disabilities; indigenous people have little digital content in their native languages, and globally an estimated 12 percent more men use the internet than women.
Even where getting online is possible and affordable, extra efforts are needed to empower groups that are discriminated against and excluded.
Responses need to address deep and complex social and cultural factors, such as those contributing to the gender gap in access to and usage of mobile phones, smartphones, and digital services – gaps that persist in many cases despite increases in women’s income and education levels. Social marketing could play a role in changing attitudes, as it has in many other areas with backing from donors, governments, and civil society organizations. Initiatives to improve access for marginalized populations should start with consultation involving these groups in the design, deployment, and evaluation of such efforts.
Efforts to improve digital inclusion would be greatly helped if there were a clear and agreed set of metrics to monitor it. Initial work – notably by the OECD, the Group of Twenty (G20), ITU, and the Economist Intelligence Unit – needs to be broadened to reflect the wide variety of global contexts and, importantly, needs greater buy-in and participation from developing countries. The Panel urges international organizations, civil society, and governments to develop action plans around reliable and consistent measures of digital inclusion with sex-disaggregated data. Discussion about measurements and definitions would also focus attention on the issues underlying inclusion.