LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – By the end of this year, 40 percent of the world population will be online, thanks to fast growth in mobile broadband, but 4.4 billion people, mostly in the developing world, will remain unconnected, according to a new United Nations report.
Rapid growth in mobile phone use means that there will be some 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions by the end of 2013, almost as many as there are people on the planet, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the UN, said in its annual report this week.
But even though almost 100 percent of the population is covered by a mobile phone signal, not everybody has such a device and access to high-speed Internet varies greatly around the world, with some of the poorest countries lagging behind wealthier ones.
As a result, while the world is transforming itself into an information society based on high-speed, always-on connections, there is no equal access to information and communications technology (ICT) for all, the report said.
“This year’s IDI figures show much reason for optimism, with governments clearly prioritising ICTs as a major lever of socio-economic growth, resulting in better access and lower prices,” ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré said in a statement.
“Our most pressing challenge is to identify ways to enable those countries which are still struggling to connect their populations to deploy the networks and services that will help lift them out of poverty,” Touré said.
In its ICT Development Index (IDI), an annual ranking of 157 nations, the ITU identified 39 least connected countries (LCCs) which are home to 2.4 billion people, more than one third of the world’s population. They include many of the least developed countries, mostly in Africa, but also India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
The LCCs could potentially derive great benefits from better access to and use of ICT, including in areas such as health, education and employment, and reaching them will be key in achieving the Millennium Development Goals by their 2015 deadline and in formulating the future development policy agenda, the report said.
Most access to and use of ICT is confined to basic voice and low-speed data services in these countries. Internet access is limited, hardly ever high-speed, expensive and used only by a small percentage of the population.
In Cameroon, Djibouti, Pakistan, Rwanda and Togo, fewer than one in 10 people use the Internet. In Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Eritrea and Niger, less than 2 percent of the population is online.
The LCCs also tend to have very low fixed and mobile broadband penetration levels and are slower than others to set up 3G mobile broadband networks. Some, like Chad, Central African Republic and Niger had not launched 3G services by the end of 2012, the report said.
More than 250 million people came online in 2012, it noted.
The Republic of Korea topped the IDI index for the third year running, followed closely by Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway.
Mobile broadband is now more affordable than fixed broadband, the report said. Overall broadband prices in more than 160 countries fell to 22 percent of average monthly income in 2012 from 115 percent in 2008.
Austria has the world’s most affordable mobile broadband, while Sao Tome and Principe, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo have the least affordable.
This year the report also developed a model to estimate the size of the ‘digital native population’, defined as 15 to 24 years old with five or more years’ online experience. About 30 percent of the world’s young people are in this category.
In developed countries, 86 percent of young people – 145 million – are digital natives. In contrast, of the 503 million young Internet users in developing countries, less than half are considered digital natives.
This is expected to change rapidly as the ITU forecasts that the number of digital natives in developing countries will more than double in the next five years.