Around 7.2 billion people inhabit this planet, and over 4 billion of them don’t have the technology necessary to look that number up. In a sobering statistic that highlights the vast inequity that remains when it comes to Internet access, a new report from the United Nations’ Broadband Commission estimates that 4.2 billion people, or three-fifths of the global population, do not have regular access to the Internet. In Least Developed Countries (LDCs), only one in every 10 individuals has regular access to the Internet, and worse yet, access is often striated along gender divides. Given the enormous potential in terms of education, equity, and opportunity provided by the Internet, the glacial pace at which broadband has made its way around the world is viewed by many as problematic.
“The digital divide is proving stubbornly persistent in terms of access to broadband Internet, including the challenge of extending last-mile access to infrastructure to remote and rural communities,” the nearly 100-page report notes. Worse yet, getting the remaining 60 percent of the world online may prove more challenging than before, as “there are indications that Internet growth is slowing, as broadband services extend out of urban areas to more remote, less densely populated areas.”
Despite the seeming ubiquity of the Internet in countries like the United States, the western world has established something of a monopoly not only on the Web, but on its content as well. Shockingly, just 5 percent of the 7,100 languages spoken in the world are represented online, which means that many individuals across the globe remain unaware of the “Internet’s potential or cannot use it, because there is little or no useful content in their native language.” The report continues, “It is vital to improve awareness of the Internet and its content, particularly in languages that are not well-represented online.”
Numerous studies, like one published in 2013 by Intel and Dalberg and another set of case studies carried out by Stanford University, have noted the huge potential for socioeconomic impact in LDCs. Particularly when it comes to women, the Internet can be a powerful tool for empowerment, and as the Intel study noted, nearly half of the women from LDCs surveyed used the Web to search for and apply for a job, and 30 percent had used the Internet to earn additional income. Moreover, more “than 70 percent of Internet users considered the Internet ‘liberating’ and 85 percent said it ‘provides more freedom.'”
A number of American companies have plans in place to help spread the wealth when it comes to Internet, but as the U.N.’s Broadband Commission points out, “empowering people via broadband needs much more than infrastructure alone — extending access must be accompanied by the development of relevant content in different forms (e.g., print, audio, video) and new services (e.g., e-commerce and payments in local languages).”
The report ends with a number of policy recommendations that governments may take to aid in the proliferation of the web across the world. And with the U.N.’s goal of having 60 percent of the world online by 2020, they’re going to need all the help they can get.