September 19, 2021

Preventing a new internet digital (usage) divide

Case Study By

Mr. Kevin Martin

Vice President, Mobile and Global Access Policy, Facebook

State of Broadband 2021

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting with friends and family, work, entertainment and education shifted significantly to online channels. Without being connected to the Internet, people cannot participate in many of the essential elements of life that have gone online.

In a traditional sense, the world has made tremendous progress bridging the digital divide. According to the Inclusive Internet Index (3i), conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit with support from Facebook, nearly 90% of the world’s population is covered by at least a 3G signal, and 76% has access to 4G.

Yet barely half of the world uses the Internet. What was once a digital divide marked by disparities in network coverage has evolved in many places into a “Digital Usage Divide” marked by people unable, unwilling, or uninterested in using the Internet.

According to GSMA’s State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report, lack of literacy and digital skills are the biggest barriers to internet adoption among people that are aware of the Internet. The report notes that in Low-to-Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), almost a quarter of adults were not even aware of the mobile Internet. The 3i similarly reveals significant regression over the past year in Readiness, a function of digital skills and people’s perceptions about trust and safety online; and a reduction in Relevance, a function of the value people derive from the content available to them online.

The greatest opportunity and need to expand connectivity now is to focus on the usage gap – the barriers preventing people who have access to the Internet from using it.

The Broadband Commission should recognize the barriers preventing people from accessing the internet and endeavor to improve the affordability and relevance of the Internet, and the ability of people to draw value from it.

1

The Commission should focus its efforts on making broadband services and equipment more affordable for consumers by embracing, over time, a “2 for 2” goal—2 GB of mobile broadband data available for 2% or less of GNI per capita, up from the current “1 for 2” goal.

2

Government, private sector players, NGOs and other institutions should work together to raise awareness and improve the relevance of the Internet to people by further digitizing public services, health, and education resources, making more content available in local languages, and improving services for people with low levels of literacy or other accessibility challenges.

3

Government, private sector players, NGOs and other institutions should work together to support programs to enhance literacy and digital skills, particularly among women and girls, rural communities, and other traditionally marginalized populations.