Universal internet access unlikely until at least 2050, experts say

Guardian Technology 10 Jan 2019 01:30
Students use laptops to browse the internet over a wireless network in the town of Kokrobitey, Ghana. Photograph: Alamy

Parts of the world will be excluded from the internet for decades to come without major efforts to boost education, online literacy and broadband infrastructure, experts have warned.

While half the world’s population now uses the internet, a desperate lack of skills and stagnant investment mean the UN’s goal of universal access, defined as 90% of people being online, may not be reached until 2050 or later, they said.

The bleak assessment highlights the dramatic digital divide that has opened up between those who take the internet and its benefits for granted and those who are sidelined because they either lack the skills to be online, cannot afford access or live in a region with no connection.

“If there is any kind of faltering in the rate of people coming online, which it appears that there is, then we’ll have a real challenge in getting 70%, 80% or 90% connected,” said Adrian Lovett, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, an organisation set up by the inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

In December, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) declared that global internet access had crossed a threshold with more than half of the world’s population now online. The figures reflect not only the spread of online connectivity, often in the form of mobile broadband, but whether people are able to use it – meaning they have the skills and income to get online and find material of interest there.

According to Jorge, investment by telecoms operators has either stalled or declined in recent years, and what investment exists is often inefficient, with funds poorly allocated to reach the most people. “Given the recent declining levels of growth in internet use and high costs of internet access to significant levels of low-income populations around the world, it is possible that we will only reach universal access in 2050 or later,” she said.

But focusing on access and affordability can distract from another major problem, Jorge added. Around the world, internet use is tightly linked to education, and many people who are unconnected lack basic education as well as digital skills. “The lack of skills is almost a crisis and it is much greater in the developing world,” Jorge said.

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Sonia JorgeUNGhanaITUAdrian Lovett
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