The global internet divide is still wide and deep

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Oct 25, 2022

  • Disparities between some lower-income and higher-income countries are actually increasing
  • The region with the lowest internet penetration is Africa
  • Internet in Africa is 79% more expensive than in Europe
  • Lower-income countries work three times more for three times slower broadband

For a generation and more now, a lot of time, effort, money and (let’s be frank) huge gouts of political hot air from self-serving politicians have been expended on the digital divide as organisations great and small, from the United Nations down, have attempted to define, remedy and, ultimately, bridge it.

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

Now, even though 5.11 billion people (that’s 65.6% of the global population) use the internet, the rest of humanity, the “digitally dispossessed”, find that, even where it is actually possible, access to the internet is uneven, partial and often cripplingly expensive. As things stand, 8.2% of the global population lives in a country with an internet penetration of 50% or less. By way of comparison, almost 90% of the population of Europe has access to the internet. Globally, the lowest internet penetration is found in Africa.

Surfshark, a well-regarded VPN service company based in the Netherlands, has a penchant for in-depth research and has just released a study covering the variations and aberrations found between both narrowband and broadband internet access around the world. It throws a harsh spotlight on some extreme differences between the developed and developing economies.


The five pillars supporting the Digital Quality of Life

The report is based on the findings of Surfshark’s 2022 Digital Quality of Life (DQL) Index, which examines digital well-being across 117 countries and thus encompasses 92% of the global population. The interactive study indexes each country according to five ‘pillars’ that impact a population's overall digital quality of life.

The five pillars cover internet affordability, internet quality, electronic infrastructure, e-security and e-government. The report then provides a country-by-country ranking based on the data supplied via the five pillars. What the study reveals overall is massive disparities in the levels and costs of internet inequality.

One of the most stark and notable is that internet users in lower-income countries have to work for three times longer (in terms of hours of labour) than users in higher-income nations to be able to afford to access the internet and, when they can actually use the internet, it works three times more slowly than connections in higher-income countries. Such levels of internet inequality, when taken in conjunction with the global inflation that is raging at different rates almost everywhere and is disproportionately high in developing nations, are “taking people from lower-income countries on a downward spiral of economic hardship”.

Agneska Sablovskaja, lead researcher of the Surfshark report said: “People who can’t access the internet are cut off from the digital opportunities that people from higher-income countries have. Without internet access, people can’t study or work online, and they can’t grow their economy with digital exports. The internet is also very slow in lower-income countries. Even if people from these countries can afford the internet, they still face limitations in what they can do. For instance, internet speeds in lower-income countries make it very difficult to make video calls.”

It is the world’s poorest countries that continue to pay the most for poor-quality internet, and, as the Surfshark report makes clear, that situation is unlikely to change in the near future. In terms of geographies, Africa remains the continent with the biggest digital divide and lowest internet penetration. Right now, in October 2022, the internet in Africa is 83% less affordable than in Oceania and the Far East, which have the world’s most affordable internet.

Indeed, the study’s data shows that the gap between these regions has actually increased by more than 20 percentage points over the past few years. Meanwhile, just 55% of Africa’s population can access a generally much slower and more expensive internet, while 90% of Europeans get comparatively inexpensive fast broadband access.

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

As far as broadband internet access is concerned, subscribers in lower-income countries work 8 hours a week more than higher-income countries to afford a fixed broadband plan that is 83Mbit/s slower on average. 

To put things in another perspective, of the 10 highest-ranking countries in e-infrastructure, 96% of the population uses the internet. In the ten lowest-ranking countries, just 29% do.

The deployment of high-speed internet infrastructure is extremely expensive in terms of money, people and other resources and the Surfshark report shows that countries with the best and most modern broadband networks come out top in other ways as well. For example, European countries make up more than 50% of global ICT exports, ranking second only to the Far East in terms of internet quality and affordability. Asia makes up 33% of all global exports and most of those come from China and India. However, Asia’s ICT exports per capita are 10 times lower than Europe’s. Meanwhile, Africa exports the least ICT.

And finally, a point to note: In the Surfshark report, the category “lower-income countries” comprises a combination of “low income” and “lower middle income”, according to last year’s data from Worldbank. Similarly, “higher-income countries" are a conflation of those labelled “upper middle income” and “high income” by Worldbank.

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