Alex Grigsby is the assistant director for the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Broadband Commission released its annual report on Monday, with statistics on the state of Internet access. Here are some highlights:
- Approximately 3.2 billion people will have Internet access by the end of this year, representing just over 43 percent of the world population. The vast majority of those people are in the developed world, where 82 percent of people are online. The developing world only has about 35 percent Internet penetration.
- The growth of Internet usage is slowing. This can largely be explained by the fact that most urban areas, where it is more economically viable for providers to deploy equipment, now have some form of Internet access. Rolling out broadband to rural and remote areas will likely take more time, hence the slowdown in growth.
- Most of the developing world’s first interaction with the Internet will probably be on a smartphone as mobile broadband subscriptions outpace fixed broadband subscriptions.
- Internet access is getting considerably cheaper, with a majority of the world’s countries having reached a target of fixed broadband service available for 5 percent of gross national income per capita.
Although the report praises the growth of Internet access, it also provides an overview of the major challenges that will continue to impede broadband rollout to the roughly 4 billion people without access. On the supply side, providing access to people in rural areas makes it less commercially viable for providers to deploy equipment, often requiring government investment to incentivize providers.
On the demand side, many in the developing world don’t necessarily perceive a need for Internet access. According to the report, "a significant number of national languages (such as Hindi and Swahili) are used by less than 0.1%" of the ten million most popular websites in the world. It’s hard to grasp the value of the Internet if the content or applications are in a language that someone can’t comprehend. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Developers won’t create local applications and services unless there’s a market for those services, but it’s hard to gauge whether a market exists if people don’t see the utility of getting online.
With the release of the zero-draft of the WSIS+10 outcome document earlier this month and the negotiations slated to begin in earnest next month, countries are likely going to use the report to their advantage. Russia and the G-77 (UN-speak for a grouping of developing countries) could use it to argue that the 57 percent who continue to lack Internet access justifies new targets and international mechanisms to get 4 billion people online. Their respective position papers submitted to the UN in advance of the negotiation process include references to the need for a new multilateral body to manage Internet issues, a position they have consistently taken over the last decade.
Opponents of new mechanisms, including most Western countries, could point to the Broadband commission as proof that the digital divide is narrowing. And while they will probably argue that more work needs to be done, alternative solutions such as regulatory environments that favor broadband deployment and spectrum policy are more likely to bridge the divide than new international institutions. For example, the U.S. government is slated to announce a new "Global Connect" initiative in the next two weeks at the UN General Assembly, which will aim to bring 1.5 billion people online over the next five years with the help of the World Bank.
You can read the report in its entirety here.