July 20, 2015

How bad is the digital divide?

Digital divide = the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.
We all have heard about digital divide. Common sense says that there is less usage of internet in developing countries and rural areas as compared to developed countries and urban centres. In addition, unemployed and poor people as well as aged persons are less likely to use internet due to constraints of purchasing power and technological barriers. 

But common sense does not give a measurement, so we searched the web to update ourselves and our esteemed readers about the status of internet penetration at global level. We came across a report by ITU (International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency) published as recently as 4 days back. Let's see what the data say about the availability and usage of internet.

Internet penetration, price and quality

According to ITU, there are 3.2 billion internet users in the world (population over 7 billion) in 2015. Out of them, 2 billion are from the developed countries. 

In developed countries, 8 out of 10 people have access to internet but in the developing ones, only 4 out of 10 have internet. In Africa, only 2 out of 10 have the luxury of internet.

Even if broadband is available, how good is it? The report says, the broadband speed in S. Korea, Japan, Europe and north America, the speed is 10mbps or more. In the least developed countries, it still remains 256 kbps or less (that's about 1/40th of that in the developed world).

In developing countries, internet is about thrice as expensive as that in the developed countries. This, even in PPP (purchase price parity) terms; in dollar terms it is much more.

Availability of mobile phones

The use of feature phones and smart phones has risen over the years, much faster than that of other devices. It has grown manifold in poor countries but due to a low base, they are too far from catching up with the developed nations.

By end 2015, there are over 7 billion mobile phone users, having grown ten times in the last 15 years. By this count, almost everybody 
in the world (97% of the population) has a mobile phone. We believe it to be a statistical fallacy.

Mobile internet and smart phones

Availability and use of mobile internet is growing at a scorching pace. It has grown 12 times in 5 years. 

Almost half the world population now has mobile internet.

Mobile internet penetration is low in rural areas: while almost everybody in cities can access mobile internet, the facility is available only to one-third of the global population residing in rural areas.

Mobile internet in developing countries remains twice as expensive as that in developed nations, even in PPP terms.

Is the digital divide widening or narrowing? 

Well, this report would let us believe that the divide is narrowing. However, when you segregate data for various regions, you find that the #digitaldivide is going both ways; in some pockets (especially in countries where governments have been proactive), it has narrowed down fast whereas it has grown in other areas. There are conflicting reports too about the same country or region. 

One thing is certain: the divide has grown in qualitative terms even if it has shrunk in numbers. The well-to-do (whether nations or individuals) lap up the latest technology much faster than the ones whose devices, purchasing power and technology absorption capacity allow only low-end technology. 

You may also like to read our take on net neutrality.