Recent analysis defines 50 percent Internet usage by population as a tipping point for economic growth among developing countries.
The United Nations International Telecommunications Union recently announced that by 2014 there will be nearly three billion Internet users. Shortly thereafter, on May 17, at the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) the UN discussed the digital divide—the technology gap that increases economic disparity making growth and competition on a global scale more difficult for developing nations.
Broadband connectivity is a hugely important tool in reaching the three pillars of sustainable development in nations: economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental balance. While most countries are
Years to Reach Digital Divide by Country
(click to explore)
We’ve shaded the countries based on how soon they will cross the digital divide. Countries in green have already crossed the divide. Countries in red have not. The darker the red the longer a particular country will need to reach 50 percent Internet usage by population.
Of the countries for which we have data, 84 countries have already reached the 50 percent threshold and at current rates, 48 will make the jump within five years.
The populations of Bolivia, Bhutan, Cape Verde, Fiji, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Mexico, Nepal, Panama, Ukraine, and Vietnam could all reach 50 percent Internet users this year. Watch for signs of economic growth from these countries in the coming years.
Identifying the Divide
According to a study by the ITU, only 32.4 percent of the population in developing nations has accessed the Internet in the last three months. The study also showed growth in the number of Internet users in the developing world at a rate of 19.1 percent in 2014.
This rapid growth rate is encouraging, but in order to actually quantify and visualize the economic digital divide, we compared Internet users as measured by the ITU study with per capita GDP from World Bank estimates in the same year.
The data above shows a clear logarithmic curve. With the exception of Equatorial Guinea, every country with less than 50 percent of its population using the Internet has a GDP per capita lower than $12,000.
Finding the significance of a 50 percent threshold reinforces the findings of a 2009 analysis by Dr. Pantelis Koutroumpis. Both our data and Koutroumpis’s shows 50 percent usage by population as the point where the Internet actually begins to help the economy.
Intuitively, we can surmise that if only a small percentage of a country’s population has Internet access, then networking capabilities are still too limited to drive change. Now we have some evidence as to at what percentage that begins to change.
Countries must reach a critical mass of online buyers and sellers in order to drive economic growth. We define this critical mass of 50 percent Internet usage as the economic digital divide.
Bridging the Divide
With the support of the UN, government efforts to increase broadband penetration, and non-profit’s like A4AI and Internet.org, the developing world is crossing the economic digital divide at a rapid rate. Still, nearly 60 percent of the global population has no Internet access. Our numbers show 37 countries still over five years away from reaching the 50 percent threshold for Internet users by population. At their current Internet user growth rate, Rwanda and Somalia both have over 75 years before reaching the 50 percent threshold.
Identifying the Economic Digital Divide gives organizations working to improve broadband access in developing countries a target. They can use this information to show how much work still needs to be done. They can use it show the need for more funding, more support, and more involvement. Most importantly, they can use this information to show people that success is possible if they increase their efforts.
Predicting the Divide
To estimate when current countries can expect to cross the digital divide, we looked at the latest available Internet user data from 2012 and the average growth rate for the last three years to predict how many years developing countries will need before they reach the 50 percent Internet users threshold.
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While many non-profits seek to improve conditions in developing countries by improving Internet accessibility, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) leads the way in taking a new approach to the problem. As we’ve seen recently, the national GDP in developing nations correlates strongly with Internet accessibility. Unlike the non-profit organizations working to improve accessibility through increased funding, A4AI doesn’t try to supplement or change the way a country’s money flow works, just work within it to make affordable Internet access a reality.
What is A4AI?
A4AI is a global coalition that monitors Internet accessibility and affordability in emerging and developing countries. The Alliance works with these countries to make policy, regulatory, and infrastructure changes that will spread the availability of Internet access. Theoretically, by increasing availability and regulating price, market competition increases, which means more people are able to connect to the Internet.
Where is A4AI Working?
Founded in 2012, A4AI targeted Ghana and Nigeria as the first nations with which it would work. In our research and data correlations, we’ve seen that Ghana and Nigeria should both cross the digital divide within one year. Since A4AI only signed coalition agreements with the Ghanan and Nigerian governments at the beginning of this year, it’s too early to say how their efforts will impact the timeline for Ghana and Nigeria to cross over.
A4AI will publish an Affordability Report every year, starting in 2013, that identifies the top countries set to gain access to affordable Internet. In the 2013 report, A4AI identified their top five emerging countries (countries that show rapid growth and economic development, but have not crossed the digital divide):
And their top five developing countries (countries that have not yet hit the rate of growth necessary to prepare them for economic change):
A4AI works toward easily-accessible, affordable Internet in more desperate economic situations because “the Web is becoming increasingly important in the developing world as a tool to set up businesses, drive improvements in health care and education, and increase government accountability to citizens.”1 Based on infrastructure support and existing policy and price regulations, the A4AI report only looks at 46 emerging and developing nations.
Who is Helping A4AI?
A lot of heavy-hitting organizations and companies have backed A4AI’s efforts. These include, but are not limited to:
While some corporations have profit-based interests in improving Internet accessibility and cost across the globe, companies like Omidyar Network, an investment company captained by eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, are also deeply interested in the individual opportunities that can be created.
“At Omidyar Network, we start from a fundamental belief: People are inherently capable, but they often lack opportunity. We believe if we invest in people, through opportunity, they will create positive returns for themselves, their families, and the world at large.
We also believe that businesses can be a powerful force for good…Just as eBay created the opportunity for millions of people to start their own businesses, we believe market forces can be a potent driver for positive social change. That’s why we invest in both for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations, whose complementary roles can advance entire sectors.”2
The list of civil society and foundational backers is equally impressive:
The Centre for Internet & Society
Association for Progressive Communications
Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
Digital Society Foundation
Open Technology Institute
World Wide Web Foundation
WISAT (Women in Global Science & Technology) and more
These organizations understand the significant opportunities Internet access provides to developing nations and their citizens.
Bringing the Internet to the Entire World
A4AI and its partners continue to think outside the box for finding solutions to the digital divide created by limited Internet accessibility in the developing world. One partner, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the UN, manages global radio spectrum allocations and satellite orbits, creates best practices and technical standards for seamless technological interconnectedness around the globe, and works to bring information and communications technologies to underserved communities worldwide.3
The efforts to improve a nation’s conditions through internet accessibility seem to be working. As Alcatel-Lucent’s Vice President phrased it, “We are now able to start measuring the significant positive impact broadband connectivity is having on improving access to education and health, how it creates jobs and economic growth, reduces poverty, facilitates better governance, enables gender equality and connects citizens.”4
Here at HighSpeedInternet.com, we’re excited about the innovative thinking of A4AI and its partners as well as the measurable results we’re beginning to see. We’ll continue to follow their progress as they bring affordable Internet to countries on the brink of breaking through the digital divide.
A4AI is on Twitter as @A4A_Internet and uses the hashtag #affordableinternet. Join the conversation and show your support of a world where everyone has Internet access.