Smartphones are getting cheaper. 3G and 4G are reaching more people than ever. However, nearly three billion people are still offline – and in fact have never used the internet. And, of those 2.9 billion, an estimated 96 per cent live in developing countries.
That’s some of the new data from the 2021 edition of Facts and Figures, the annual overview of the state of digital connectivity worldwide from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs).
On the positive side the ITU figures show that there has also been strong global growth in internet use, with the estimated number of people who have used the internet surging to 4.9 billion in 2021, from an estimated 4.1 billion in 2019. This rise may have been caused by a 'Covid-19 connectivity boost' due to the need to get information, buy goods or do online shopping or banking during pandemic-related lockdowns and school closures.
The strong growth since 2019 was largely driven by increases in developing countries, where internet penetration climbed more than 13 per cent. In the 46 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the average increase exceeded 20 per cent.
However, even among the 4.9 billion people counted as internet users, the ITU points out that many hundreds of millions may only get the chance to go online infrequently, via shared devices, or using connectivity speeds that markedly limit the usefulness of their connection.
Many of these 'digitally excluded' face formidable challenges including poverty, illiteracy, limited access to electricity, and lack of digital skills and awareness.
Area, age and gender inequality also affect take-up. In developing countries, people in urban areas are twice as likely to use the internet as those in rural areas. In addition some 34 per cent of young people are connected, compared with only 22 per cent of the rest of the population. Women in LDCs are particularly marginalized, with roughly four out of every five still offline.
Affordability of devices and services remains another major barrier. In some of the world's poorest nations, getting online can cost a staggering 20 per cent or more of per capita GNI.