Half the world’s population is still offline. Here’s why that matters

United Nations Internet Access

UNICEF/Karki – Two girls speak to a psychologist using a mobile phone in rural sindhupalchowk, Nepal. In the background, a house lies in ruin, destroyed by the devastating 2015 earthquakes in country. World’s most vulnerable countries on track to achieve universal Internet access by 2020 – UN report.

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Eric White,  Project Lead, Internet for All, Global Leadership Fellow, World Economic Forum & Oren Pinsky, Project Coordinator, Internet for All, Latin America, World Economic Forum Geneva

Last month scientists at Tufts University announced that they had created a sensor that can be mounted on a tooth to track diet quality and make tailored nutritional recommendations.

Around the same time, Microsoft announced that it had developed software that could translate Chinese to English as fast and as accurately as a human. To top it off, just last week the world learned that there is now a robot that can autonomously assemble furniture.

Such stories make it clear: to read the science and technology news today is to see a world of rapid progress and infinite potential.

And from one perspective it is.

But we believe that now is a good time to remind everyone of a fundamental limitation of the ability of technology to make the world a better place. All of these advances in one way or another rely on the internet – a tool which remains foreign to over half of the world’s population.

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development says that the world will not even achieve 50% internet use until the end of this year. If the world maintains current internet user growth rates – a big if – we won’t approach 100% global internet adoption for well over two decades.

Internet of Things

In that time experts predict that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be in full swing. We will be connected to a vast Internet of Things network that will feed unimaginable amounts of data into ever more advanced artificial intelligence tools, enabling us to create new and highly disruptive products and services that generate huge amounts of wealth. Or, at least those of us with an internet connection will be.

This looming and unequal wealth explosion is important because it will exacerbate the current fault lines of global inequality. Internet use is overwhelmingly concentrated in advanced economies, and the biggest gaps are in the world’s poorest areas.

The map and chart below shows hot spots of internet connectivity in most developed countries and huge opportunities to increase access to the internet in developing countries.

If this situation is not resolved soon the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will accrue principally to the global haves, leaving the have-nots even further behind.

The red areas show where most devices are connected to the internet

This is not to argue that the only thing stopping one of today’s Least Developed Countries from becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence is getting their full population online. Rather, doing so would create a national digital ecosystem that increases a country’s chances of being a player. In particular we should not discount the prospect of emerging economies launching homegrown industries that offer tailored products to national or regional populations, driving economic growth and helping to fight global inequality.

Do not forget the example of M-Pesa, a leading global mobile payments provider that is 50% African owned and has its largest user base in Kenya.

This perspective, that countries with minimal internet penetration are likely to miss the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is why the digital divide matters so much now. It should play a much more central role in discussions about internet development at the global level.

To date, the argument in favour of prioritizing internet development has been tied to its potential to drive sustainable development. This is an easy case to make. Not only are there now many studies that show the macro-level growth benefits of increasing broadband penetration, but the stories of how the lives of individuals and communities are regularly transformed by the arrival of the internet continue to amaze. As internet development professionals we have seen these ourselves

One of us saw first-hand how a poor Indonesian entrepreneur grew his income seven-fold in nine months when he received an internet connection in his home. He used Facebook to find distributors for the food product he made, convinced several to make a visit, and signed contracts with every one.

The other witnessed how an eight-year-old boy was able to use the internet to save the local economy of a village in northern Brazil. The village survived on selling chickens, and a very large number of local hens had recently begun eating their own eggs. This was traditionally seen as a sign that the bird was possessed by spirits and needed to be put to death. But the boy was able to find a YouTube video that explained it simply indicated a calcium deficiency in the chicken’s diets, well within the villagers capacity to solve.

Yet as compelling as these arguments are, they have not adequately swayed the global debate.

Despite the fact that the rate of internet growth is too slow, despite the fact that the Global Infrastructure Hub has identified a $1 trillion global financing gap for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure between now and 2040, over the last six years multilateral development banks have devoted just 1% of their resources to this issue.

Why? A recent survey supported by the World Wide Web Foundation showed that investment in ICT connectivity is seen overwhelmingly as the domain of the private sector, and specifically of mobile operators.

Image: International Telecommunication Union

This needs to change, and a good first step is to flip the argument. If governments, whose requests to development banks drive the MDB loan portfolio, cannot justify ICT investments on sustainable development grounds, perhaps they can do so by showing how connectivity is now imperative to taking part in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This might also help generate the political will to clarify regulatory regimes and make the sector more transparent and attractive to non-traditional private investors.

At the World Economic Forum we are working with governments and regional bodies on ways of broadening the pool of connectivity investors through our Internet for All project.

New research that we have just launched shows that in areas of low internet use mobile operators face a difficult investment environment. Though in some cases the returns to connectivity investments can exceed the costs in less than two years, these returns are accrued to the economy as a whole rather than to a private investor. Network operators often need co-financing to make an investment profitable.

If we bring more players into the ICT investment space, we can start to socialize the costs of investments to better reflect the disbursement of returns. This should significantly increase ICT infrastructure development. But it starts with thinking about the internet differently. Connecting a population is not just about economic growth or social inclusion. It’s about keeping your country from missing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, furniture-building robots and all.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

E-cigars: Improbable ally or enemy in disguise?

How digital can transform healthcare in Asia for millions of people

‘Repeated attacks’ could close down key hospital in eastern Libya, says WHO

What is the evidence on wearing masks to stop COVID-19?

Investors must travel a winding road to net-zero. Here’s a map

OECD: Mind the financial gap that lies ahead

New EU rules ensure better protection for 120 million holidaymakers this summer

Sustainable Development Summit: ‘We must step up our efforts – now’, Guterres declares

Global spotlight on world drug problem ‘is personal’ for many families, says UN chief

European Commissioner for Youth wants young people to be at heart of policy making

Mergers: Commission approves acquisition of Nets’ account-to-account payment business by Mastercard, subject to conditions

UN-led Yemen ceasefire monitoring team gets ready to begin operations

DR Congo: Restore internet services as ‘a matter of urgency’, urges UN expert

The cuts on 2014 Budget will divide deeply the EU

President von der Leyen joins the Global Citizen campaign to end COVID-19 and kick start a global recovery

Fed, ECB take positions to face the next global financial crisis; the Brits uncovered

Can privatisation be the panacea for the lack of growth in Europe?

State aid: Commission approves €6 billion Italian schemes to support SMEs affected by coronavirus outbreak

Young people worldwide can ‘determine the future of migration,’ says UN senior official

India is now the world’s 5th largest economy

These are the world’s 10 most competitive economies in 2019

Outbreaks and pandemics periods can be stressful, but how can we turn it to a positive life-changing experience?

New committees begin their work

5 myths about face masks under the microscope

Migration crisis update: mutual actions and solidarity needed as anti-migrant policies thrive

UN rights expert calls for end to ‘purgatory’ of ‘international inaction’ facing Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya

Force used against protestors in Gaza ‘wholly disproportionate’ says UN human rights chief

Sudzha gas metering station at Russian-Ukrainian border (Copyright: Gazprom, 2015 / Gazprom’s website, Media)

Gazprom starts suspending gas contracts with Ukraine as Brussels fears limited transit to Europe

European Commission determined to conclude EU-Mercosur trade deal this year despite French concerns

Coronavirus: here’s what you need to know about face masks

Reasons to hope and reasons to keep perspective on a vaccine

Gaza investigators call on Israel to review ‘rules of engagement’ as Gaza protest anniversary looms

This lethal fungus is threatening to wipe out the world’s bananas

People talk less now than during the Cold War, says Merkel at Davos

European Semester 2018 Spring Package: Commission issues recommendations for Member States to achieve sustainable, inclusive and long-term growth

Latest leaked TTIP document confirms EU sovereignty may be under threat

EU’s Mogherini visits Turkey “to step up engagement” and highlight interests

Colombia’s former president says COVID-19 shows the importance of listening to indigenous peoples on how we treat the planet

2019 European Elections gets backing from professional footballers

UN chief welcomes Taliban’s temporary truce announcement, encourages all parties to embrace ‘Afghan-owned peace’

Empathic AI could be the next stage in human evolution – if we get it right

Global climate change: consequences for human health in Brazilian cities

The world needs carbon-neutral flying. Here’s how to bring it one step closer

In tech-driven 21st century, achieving global development goals requires closing digital gender divide

Nearly 180,000 displaced by northeast Syria fighting as needs multiply: UN refugee agency

Five years on from ISIL ‘caliphate’ proclamation in Iraq, Security Council makes first-ever visit

5 facts to know about Africa’s powerhouse – Nigeria

Rule of law in Hungary: Parliament should ask Council to act, say committee MEPs

EU mobilises further €15.2 million humanitarian support for food safety, epidemics preparedness and support to people in conflict areas in Latin America and Caribbean

EU deserves the title of the Syrian affair merchandiser

Christine Lagarde: the three priorities for the global economy

COVID-19 shows why we must build trust in digital financial services

‘Alarmingly high’ number of children malnourished worldwide: UNICEF report

More than 3,400 classrooms damaged or destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, says UN Children’s Fund

WTO deal is within reach to remove harmful fishing subsidies and halt global fish meltdown

Campaign kicks off with High-level Event on #FairInternships

New seat projections for the next European Parliament EU28

Mental health in primary care: a unique therapeutic project

Vienna has the world’s best quality of living

Industrial products: Lifting the last impediments in the EU single market

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s