The global internet divide is still wide and deep, Access Evolution

For a generation and more, a great deal of time, effort, money and (to be honest) vast amounts of political hot air has been expended by self-serving politicians on the digital divide as organizations large and small, from the United Nations down, have attempted to define it , to fix and finally to bridge.

Originally, when the internet was little more than a glimmer in the eyes of Bob Khan and Vint Cerf, the focus was on providing basic digital voice communications to regions and peoples that never had access to them. Later, basic data communications received the same treatment.

Although 5.11 billion people (or 65.6% of the world’s population) use the Internet today, the rest of humanity, the “digitally dispossessed”, are finding that access to the Internet, even where it is actually possible, inconsistent, partial and inconsistent is often cripplingly expensive. Currently, 8.2% of the world’s population lives in a country with internet penetration of 50% or less. For comparison: In Europe, almost 90% of the population has access to the Internet. Globally, the lowest internet penetration is found in Africa.

Surfshark, a reputable VPN services company based in the Netherlands, has a penchant for in-depth research and has just released a study covering the variations and discrepancies found between narrowband and broadband internet access around the world. It sharply highlights some extreme differences between developed and developing countries.

The five pillars of the digital quality of life

The report is based on the results of Surfshark’s 2022 Digital Quality of Life (DQL) Index, which examines digital wellbeing in 117 countries, covering 92% of the world’s population. The interactive study indexes each country according to five “pillars” that impact a population’s overall digital quality of life.

The five pillars include internet affordability, internet quality, electronic infrastructure, e-security and e-government. The report then provides a country ranking based on the data provided across the five pillars. Overall, what the study reveals are massive differences in the magnitude and cost of internet inequality.

One of the most glaring and notable is that internet users in low-income countries have to work three times longer (measured in hours worked) than users in higher-income countries to afford access to the internet and when they can actually use the internet, it works three times slower than connections in higher-income countries. Such levels of internet inequality, combined with global inflation, which rages at varying rates almost everywhere and is disproportionately high in developing countries, “snaps people from low-income countries into a downward spiral of economic hardship.”

Agneska Sablovskaja, senior researcher on the Surfshark report, said: “People who don’t have access to the internet are cut off from the digital opportunities that people from higher-income countries have. Without internet access, people cannot study or work online, and they cannot grow their economy through digital exports. Even in low-income countries, the internet is very slow. Even if people from these countries can afford the Internet, they are still limited in what they can do. For example, internet speeds in low-income countries make it very difficult to make video calls.”

It’s the world’s poorest countries that continue to pay the most for bad internet, and as the Surfshark report makes clear, that situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Geographically, Africa remains the continent with the largest digital divide and the lowest internet penetration. Right now, in October 2022, internet in Africa is 83% cheaper than in Oceania and the Far East, which has the cheapest internet in the world.

In fact, the study’s data shows that the gap between these regions has widened by more than 20 percentage points in recent years. Only 55% of Africans now have access to generally much slower and more expensive internet, while 90% of Europeans can access relatively inexpensive high-speed broadband access.

As might be expected, the lowest-income countries in Africa, such as Mali and Ethiopia, experience the sharpest divide in internet inequality.

In terms of broadband internet access, subscribers in lower-income countries work 8 hours more per week than in higher-income countries to afford a fixed broadband plan, which is on average 83 Mbps slower.

To put things in a different perspective, out of the 10 countries with the highest e-infrastructure, 96% of the population uses the internet. In the ten lowest-rated countries, only 29% do so.

Building high-speed internet infrastructure is extremely expensive in terms of money, manpower and other resources, and the Surfshark report shows that countries with the best and most modern broadband networks also come out ahead in other ways. For example, European countries account for more than 50% of global ICT exports and rank second to the Far East in terms of internet quality and affordability. Asia accounts for 33% of all global exports and most of these come from China and India. However, Asia’s ICT exports per capita are ten times lower than those of Europe. Meanwhile, Africa exports the least ICT.

Finally, a note: In the Surfshark report, the “low-income countries” category includes a combination of “low-income” and “lower-middle-income,” according to last year’s World Bank data. Similarly, “upper-income countries” are an amalgamation of countries labeled “upper middle-income” and “high-income” by the World Bank.