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Is Meaningful Universal Connectivity a Solution to Slowing Broadband Adoption?

By Wayan Vota on December 5, 2019

Broadband as a Foundation for Sustainable Development

2019 marks several important milestones for the Internet and its usage around the world:

  • 50 years since the very first internet data transmission
  • 30 years since the World Wide Web (www) and the web browser
  • 25 years since the first online e-commerce transaction.

2019 also marks the first full year when there are more mobile connections globally – at 8.16 billion – than people on the planet. This translates to an estimated 5.1 billion unique subscribers. Also more than half of the world (51.2%, or 3.9 billion people) are participating in the global digital economy by logging onto the internet.

This is great news for global economic development!

A landmark analysis by ITU shows that mobile broadband connectivity appears to have a higher economic impact in less developed countries than in more developed countries. Globally an increase of 10% in mobile broadband penetration yields an increase of 1.5% in GDP. However, a follow-up ITU study focusing on the Africa region suggests a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration in Africa would yield an increase of 2.5% of GDP per capita.

State of the Broadband 2019: Growth is Slowing

The ITU just released its State of the Broadband 2019 report and its overall message was a sense of slowing growth around the world, and especially in developing countries.

Between 2017 and 2018, ITU data shows a slowdown in overall internet adoption: growth in households with internet access at home in low income countries declined from 19.1% growth in 2017 to 17.5% growth in 2018. The 2019 Inclusive Internet Index from Facebook/EIU notes that global growth in the percentage of households connected to the internet in low-income countries improved by a mere 0.8% on average.

Three factors that are influencing this adoption slowdown:

  • A total of 43.5% respondents in low-income countries have pointed to poor connectivity as a barrier when trying to use the internet.
  • In 2018, the ‘rural mobile internet gap’ was 40% in low- and middle-income countries; those living in rural areas were 40% less likely to use the mobile internet than those in urban areas. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the rural-urban gap is 58%.
  • At least 1.3 billion people are living in countries where entry-level mobile data plans (of 1GB per month) are not affordable .

In addition, there is still a significant gender gap in internet access.

While there are a few countries where more women than men are participating online, such as in Argentina, China, Ireland and the Philippines, the digital gender divide is widest where mobile adoption is the lowest; across 10 countries in Africa, Asia and South America, women were found to be 30-50% less likely than men to use the internet to participate in public life.

This gap is widest in South Asia, where women are 58% less likely to use mobile internet than men, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, where women are 41% less likely.

Meaningful Universal Connectivity as a Solution

In the report, the ITU introduces the idea of “meaningful universal connectivity” as a solution to the global slowdown in internet adoption. They define meaningful universal connectivity as encompassing broadband adoption that is not just available, accessible, relevant and affordable, but that is also safe, trusted, empowering users and leading to positive impact.

Successful approaches to delivering meaningful universal connectivity are cognizant of the nuances that characterize barriers to access at local and regional levels. Internet users are as diverse as the global population itself. Users are not simply online or offline, but rather take myriad strategies to engage in the digital economy.

Meaningful universal connectivity strategies also recognize that non-technology and non-economic issues play a central role in decisions to participate online or not, such as lack of digital skills, linguistic and literacy barriers, social norms, and cultural attitudes. Meaningful universal connectivity strategies include:

  • Whole-of-government approaches that break down silos created by individual agencies or government ministries;
  • Truly innovative public-private partnerships – particularly targeting underserved and marginalized communities – that are sustainable and people-centric;
  • Encouraging new modes of thinking, including welcoming and testing both sustaining innovations as well as disruptive kinds.
  • Being candid and rigorous in tracking and measuring activities, clearly identifying what has worked and what hasn’t.

The State of Broadband 2019 report focuses on meaningful universal connectivity to build agency and lead to positive impact. It considers the different ways in which people use the internet, the social and cultural norms that mediate how they use it, while addressing the challenges that the marginalized in society face when trying to get online. The report calls for a combination of innovative demand and supply side strategies to achieve meaningful universal connectivity for all.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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