As the benefits of Internet connectivity have come into full focus, a number of international organizations have announced programs for dramatically increasing the number of people connecting to the Internet. According to the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU), as of 2015 approximately 3.2 billion people were actively participating on the Internet, a dramatic increase from the 400 million people who were online just fifteen years prior at the turn of the century.
However, over half of the world's population currently does not access the Internet, nor benefit from the economic and educational opportunities afforded by connectivity. Attempts to tackle this challenge drive the range of global connectivity projects, including:
• The ITU's Connect 2020 Agenda, with four major targets including fostering the adoption of the Internet by 60% of the world population by 2020;
• The US government's Global Connect program, with the goal of increasing Internet adoption by 1.5 billion people by 2020;
• The World Economic Forum (WEF) program on the Internet for All surfacing replicable models to connect the next four billion people;
• As well as several other campaigns and organizations such as the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), the World Bank and their recent 2016 World Development Report, the UN Broadband Commission, the One campaign's Connect the World program and the various private sector initiatives to extend connectivity.
The good news is that global Internet adoption is still growing. Cisco's latest forecasts of Internet growth point to an increase of one billion more Internet users from 2014 to 2019. This is driven by current growth rates and the forecasts of market expansion by the main telecommunications operators. But there are two major limitations with relying solely on market mechanisms to expand the impact of the Internet:
1) The market will only go so far in extending Internet access. The so-called market possibilities frontier will not reach people for whom market access prices remain unaffordable or those in geographic regions where returns on commercial telecom
infrastructure investments are too low to incentivize build out; and
2) The positive growth and income effects of broadband and ICTs can act as a 'double edged sword' with regard to income gains: increasing income for segments of the populations that are intensively utilizing ICTs but driving income inequality as lower resourced segments of population remain excluded from growth-enhancing opportunities. Our own research highlights the role of ICTs in rising with-in country income inequality and we point to national programs to ensure low-resourced populations are included in digitization efforts.
These two limitations of market-only approaches call for the more comprehensive effort needed to ensure that all citizens get the same access to the economic and social benefits that are brought about by the Internet. Ensuring that global initiatives complement each other will help to reduce overlap and accelerate progress towards helping people get online and benefit from the Internet.
While over 2 billion current Internet users reside in developing countries, three broad challenges still prevent the vast majority of the world from adopting and benefiting from the Internet. The first is Internet availability.
The majority of Internet users today interact with the Internet via wireless, rather than wired connections. The ITU notes that wireless mobile broadband subscriptions have outnumbered fixed wired connections since 2009, and the growth rates of mobile broadband adoption are growing at a faster pace. While terrestrial and undersea optical fiber infrastructure links are connecting the world, the spread of low-cost smart devices indicates that the next billion Internet will connect to the Internet via wireless connections. This will be primarily via Wi-Fi (where an access point connects to a wired connection) and cellular wireless.
To date, over 95% of the world's population reside in areas where 2G mobile wireless data transmission is possible. However, greater data rich interactivity (images, videos, applications) requires higher bandwidth such as 3G connectivity, which covers over two thirds of the world's population. High-speed mobile broadband via 4G/LTE is increasingly spreading across the world as well, with over a billion subscriptions. While alternatives to backhaul technologies are available (such as satellite and other wireless connectivity modalities) access points will still predominately connect via Wi-Fi and cellular. The challenge for the global community is ensuring more infrastructure access so the remaining four billion people can connect, particularly for rural populations and those underserved by existing technologies.
While data connectivity already extends to the vast majority of the world's population, a second significant barrier to the adoption and use of the Internet is the sheer affordability of, or cost of access to, the Internet. Over 111 countries have achieved the global target set by the UN Broadband Commission for national prices to be below 5% of monthly Gross National Income (GNI). Two recent reports however, highlight how national income averages mask the true picture of affordability. A4AI's 2015/16 Affordability Report demonstrates how even in countries that have met the 5% price target, differences in income distribution leaves hundreds of millions of people priced out of affordable access. By segmenting national populations into quintiles (bottom to top 20% of the population), the report finds that even in the countries that have met the 5% target, nearly half a billion people, primarily women and the poor, cannot afford Internet access at that level. Facebook's State of Connectivity 2015: A Report on Global Internet Access takes a similar approach by comparing income distribution and mobile data prices globally. The authors find that introductory mobile broadband packages of 500MB (megabytes) are "affordable for over 90% of people in developed countries, but only one third of those in developing markets." The report also finds that average household expenditure on mobile Internet data services is more than double in developing countries (3.8% of household income per capita) than in developed countries (1.8%, on average).
When Internet access is available and affordable, the third critical barrier to adoption is accessibility and applicability. Do individuals have the skills and knowledge to be able to access the Internet, and do they find value in taking initiative to connect? In various surveys identifying the main reasons why some populations are not using the Internet, accessibility (in terms of the right skills) and applicability (in terms of relevance to their lives) are the top barriers. For example, an annual ICT survey conducted in Brazil by the Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (CETIC) demonstrates that from 2007 to 2013, the two main reasons cited by non-Internet users for why they do not use the Internet are "Lack of Internet Skills" and "Lack of Need or Interest". While there is a generational difference in the survey responses, with younger non-users less likely to cite lack of interest (applicability), as the Michael Kende and Miguel Jimenez note, "it is important to focus efforts on this persist minority of Brazilians who are not swayed by increased availability or lower costs." This assertion can be extended to the rest of the 4+ billion people who are not currently online.
Tackling these challenges to accelerate Internet adoption will require a coordinated effort among public and private parties to ensure those who are not currently benefiting from the Internet are not further left behind. Expanding Internet availability requires extending network infrastructure with technology and effective business models, facilitated by conducive public policy. Ensuring affordable access requires competitive markets, creative new consumption models for underserved populations as well as policies that address commercial market failures. And addressing demand side issues of accessibility and applicability requires training programs, and the development of local content and applications benefiting users, among other actions.
The table presented above is a starting point for discussion on how various different actors in the global effort can play a role facilitating greater Internet connectivity. As the community coalesces this year in various fora discussing challenges and efforts, including the upcoming Global Connect Conference in Washington DC, mapping a coordinated effort of complementary activities can help ensure the various initiatives work together to achieve the shared goal of universal Internet adoption.