The internet celebrated several milestones this year, with 2019 marking the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web. It was also the first full year to see more than half the global population access the online world, with 51 per cent of people (or 3.9 billion) logging on to the internet. According to the International Telecommunication Union this growth was strongest in Africa, where the percentage of people using the internet has increased from 2.1 per cent in 2005 to 24.4 per cent in 2018.
Yet, while hundreds of millions of new users are still coming online each year, a new report by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has revealed that the internet’s spread is slowing. This means that the percentage of households connected only rose from 53.1 per cent last year to 54.8 per cent this year. And, in low-income countries, household internet adoption improved by just 0.8 per cent. With the Commission working towards a target of ‘broadband user internet penetration’ of 75 per cent by 2025 – there’s still a long way to go.
For many researchers and policy-makers with global development goals, this slow-down is problematic. The Commission’s report refers to broadband connectivity’s power to ‘transform human potential’, to ‘expand opportunities for enterprises’, and to ‘develop knowledge economies’. It adds that the internet is regarded as being critical for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Teddy Woodhouse, a research analyst at the World Wide Web Foundation agrees with this. The campaign group, established by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2009, was one of the contributors to the Commission’s report. ‘Internet access promotes progress across the SDGs, whether that’s by supporting innovation, reducing gender inequalities, or helping people access health and education resources,’ says Woodhouse. ‘There is a clear correlation between internet access and economic growth – and the more reliable connectivity is, the more profound the economic benefits.’
The main barrier to a wider roll-out, he adds, is the cost of access to broadband. In a recent survey, the Alliance for Affordable Internet – a Web Foundation initiative – found that more than a billion people live in countries in which connectivity is unaffordable. Analysts established this with reference to the ‘1 for 2’ internet affordability target, in which one gigabyte of data should cost no more than two per cent of average monthly income. The Commission’s report notes that sub-Saharan Africa is particularly far-behind this target, with one gigabyte in the region costing on average 6.8 per cent of monthly income, though this does represent a significant decline from 13.2 per cent in 2016.
As a result, organisations such as the Broadband Commission and the Web Foundation are pushing for policy change. The report includes ten policy recommendations, ranging from the roll-out of national broadband plans that specifically focus on marginalised people, to expansion of initiatives that map network coverage, to amplification of efforts to improve digital skills. These will be essential, it states, if the benefits enjoyed by the first 51 per cent of the world’s population are to reach the next 49.