New Delhi: Internet growth has slowed down and traditional approaches to drive internet network rollout and uptake failed to reach the remaining half of the global population still lacking online access, according to a new report issued by the UN-backed Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.
‘The State of Broadband 2019: Broadband as Foundation for Sustainable Development’ reveals that global growth in the percentage of households connected to the internet was slowing, rising only slightly to 54.8% from 53.1% last year. In low-income countries, household internet adoption improved by a mere 0.8% on an average.
Data on individuals using the internet also indicated slowing global growth in 2018, as well as a slowing growth in developing countries, which are home to the vast majority of the estimated 3.7 billion still unconnected.
Growth slowed in least developed countries, at 17.5% growth in 2018 versus 19.1% growth in 2017.
To counter slowing global growth, the report has advocated new collaborative strategies to drive the concept of ‘meaningful universal connectivity’ through greater emphasis on resource sharing and a more holistic approach that treats broadband as a basic public utility and vital enabler of global development.
Mobile broadband continues to dominate
The State of Broadband 2019 reports that while almost one billion new mobile subscribers have been added in the five years since 2013 (4.2% average annual growth), the speed of growth in mobile connections is also slowing, particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. Mobile network coverage improved much more slowly in low-income countries, with a mere 22% improvement in 4G coverage in the past five years, compared with a 66% increase in lower-middle-income countries.
In 2018, 4G overtook 2G to become the leading mobile technology across the world, with 3.4 billion connections, accounting for 44% of the total. 4G will soon become the dominant mobile technology, surpassing half of all global mobile connections in 2019, and expected to peak at 62% of all mobile connections by 2023.
Data showed that of the 730 million people expected to subscribe to mobile services for the first time over the next seven years, half will come from Asia Pacific, and just under a quarter from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The report takes a nuanced look at the nature of broadband connections globally, observing that a false dichotomy between ‘connected’ vs. ‘unconnected’ can hide grave disparities in access and present an inaccurate picture of the realities on the ground in many countries. It said, for example, while a connection speed of 256kbps is counted as ‘broadband’ for statistical purposes, users connecting at such speeds cannot enjoy a full online experience comparable to that of users accessing the net over the 100Mbps-or-better connections now considered ‘standard’ in the world’s wealthier nations.
The report noted that individuals who were online may not fit into neat binary statistical categories (‘users’ vs. ‘non-users’). Instead, people were adopting a wide range of ways interacting with, and benefiting from, the internet. There was also growing recognition of the potential downsides and risks of technology adoption, particularly for more vulnerable populations including women and children, who may become victims of cyber stalking, online aggression and hate speech, or internet-enabled child abuse, exploitation, or bullying.
Meaningful Universal Connectivity
The notion of ‘meaningful universal connectivity’ encompasses broadband that is available, accessible, relevant and affordable, but also that is safe, trusted, user-empowering and leads to positive impact.
The 2019 edition of the report reviewed progress on the Commission’s seven key advocacy targets and emphasizes the need to implement policy interventions that ensure broadband access benefits all members of society. It summarised the seven years of policy advocacy as well as the 66 policy recommendations presented in previous editions of the report, which have driven the global dialogue around broadband implementation since the Commission’s inception in 2010.
To accelerate broadband adoption and meaningful universal connectivity, the report stressed on the need to go beyond ‘business as usual’ policy prescriptions and projects, and towards more collaborative models based on resource sharing and holistic approaches.
UNESCO’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, particularly stressed on the vital importance of improving digital literacy. “Today, the main factor preventing people in developing countries from using mobile internet is not affordability but poor literacy and digital skills,” she said. “Gender inequality in digital technology is even more alarming. Women are less likely to have internet access than men, and this gap is widening.”