The immense potential of the Internet for social and economic good remains largely untapped despite 30 years of steady growth, according to a new report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.
The Global Connectivity Report 2022 argues that while easy, affordable access to fast broadband is near-ubiquitous in most rich-world nations, vast swaths of humanity remain excluded from the immense possibilities offered by the online experience, stunting economic development and deepening global inequalities.
While the number of Internet users surged from a just a few million in the early 1990s to almost five billion today, 2.9 billion people – or around one third of humanity – still remain totally offline, and many hundreds of millions more struggle with expensive, poor-quality access that does little to materially improve their lives.
The report advocates for putting 'universal and meaningful connectivity' – defined as the possibility of a safe, satisfying, enriching, productive, and affordable online experience for everyone – at the centre of global development. It also evaluates how close the world is to achieving that universal and meaningful connectivity, using the connectivity targets for 2030 recently released by ITU and the Office of the UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology.
The cost of broadband subscriptions and digital devices remains a major barrier to connectivity, the report confirms. While Internet access has become progressively cheaper in richer countries, getting online is still prohibitively expensive in many low- and lower-middle-income economies.
Although the cost of broadband – especially mobile broadband – has fallen significantly over the past decade, the majority of low- and middle-income economies still fall short of the global affordability target of 2% or less of gross national income per capita set by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.
“Equitable access to digital technologies isn't just a moral responsibility, it's essential for global prosperity and sustainability," said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “We need to create the right conditions, including promoting environments conducive to investment, to break cycles of exclusion and bring digital transformation to all.”
While the COVID-related surge in demand for Internet access brought some 800 million additional people online, it also dramatically increased the cost of digital exclusion, with those unable to connect abruptly shut out of employment, schooling, access to health advice, financial services, and much more.
“Universal, meaningful connectivity has become the global imperative for our decade," said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau, which produced the report. “It's no longer just about linking people – the catalytic role of connectivity will also be absolutely critical to our success in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals."