New statistics from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) suggest that while internet connectivity and usage is on the rise, it’s barely making a dent in the digital divide as low-income countries continue to be left behind.
According to the ITU’s latest Facts and Figures report released on Monday, 5.4 billion people are now online – that’s around 67% of the global population and a 4.7% increase from 2022. Consequently, the number of unconnected people dropped slightly to an estimated 2.6 billion people.
In low-income countries, the number of Internet users has grown just over 44% since 2020, and by 14.3% in the past year, compared to around 1% in high-income countries. However, that also reflects the fact that low-income countries are measured from a much lower initial number of users. For context, 27% of people in low-income countries use the internet (compared to 24% a year ago), while in high-income countries that figure is 93%.
This year’s report – which includes analysis of internet data usage for the first time – also found that fixed-broadband services accounted for over 80% of global internet traffic in 2022.
However, most of that is concentrated in high-income countries, as most low-income countries have higher mobile penetration than fixed-line penetration. The report also notes that in all countries, the number of mobile users is typically higher than the number of internet users.
The ITU report says not only are fewer people are online in low-income countries, but those who are connected use less data. Monthly fixed-broadband data usage in low-income countries in 2022 averaged 161 GB per fixed-broadband subscription vs 1 GB per mobile-broadband subscription. That’s considerably lower than the global monthly average of 257 GB for fixed-broadband and 11 GB for mobile.
This means internet users in low-income countries aren’t achieving the full potential of connectivity or realizing the benefits of digital transformation, the report says.
Similarly, the growth of 5G is also concentrated in higher-income countries. The ITU report says that 5G mobile network coverage covered almost 40% of the world population at the end of 2022, but 89% of people with access to 5G live in high-income countries. In low-income countries, 5G is mostly absent or in trials, while 4G only reaches 39% of the population in those countries. While 3G is available as an internet connectivity option, it’s not good enough to support digital technology apps like remote medical diagnostics and online learning.
The ITU report also found that the gender divide continues to be a problem. Globally, 70% of men are using the Internet vs 65% of women. Both are slight increases from 2022, but the gap is wider in low-income countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) by at least ten percentage points. Meanwhile, the gender divide has gotten worse among the offline population, where women outnumber men by 17% (compared to 11% in 2019).
Dr Cosmas Luckyson Zavazava, director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau, said the report shows that despite some good news, the digital divide between high and low-income countries is deepening.
“Thanks to this report and its new indicators, we have a better understanding of where to focus our resources and efforts towards achieving our goal of universal and meaningful connectivity," he said.