Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population now have the opportunity to waste away their life online just like you. Specifically, around 2.9 billion (or 37%) of the world’s population have still never used the internet, with the vast majority of those people residing in developing countries. Those figures are part of a new report conducted by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union which simultaneously found a rapid increase in new global internet connections, seemingly fast-tracked by the pandemic.
According to the report, the number of people using the internet worldwide surged from 4.1 billion in 2019 to 4.9 billion in 2021. This “COVID Connectivity boost” was likely the result of lockdowns, pivots towards remote work and school, and huge increases in e-commerce and online banking. Overall, global internet users grew by more than 10% in 2020, the largest annual increase in a decade, the report notes.
But these massive increases only tell part of the story. For starters, a significant portion of new internet users during the pandemic (and global internet users generally) connect infrequently and often only through shared devices or via limited, low connectivity speeds. Secondly, there’s clearly a massive digital divide separating rich nations and poorer developing countries. 96% of those still unable to connect to the internet fall in the latter category. There are also huge gaps between urban and rural access. While 76 per cent of individuals in urban areas worldwide used the internet, that figure dips down to 39% for those in rural areas.
“These statistics show great progress towards ITU’s mission to connect the world,” ITU Director of Telecommunication Development Bureau Doreen Bogdan-Martin said in a statement. “But a vast ‘connectivity chasm’ remains in the LDCs, where almost three-quarters of people have never connected to the Internet.”
Internet access remains skewed towards men as well, particularly in poorer developing countries. While globally 62% of men use the internet compared to women, that disparity increased significantly in the least developed country where 31% of men connected to the internet compared to 57% of women.
Though the number of totally unconnected users is shrinking, they still collectively represent a massive growth opportunity for international tech companies…and there’s no shortage of tech giants already vying to be the ones to bring those last 3 billion online. All around the world, Google, Facebook, and Amazon are spending billions to build out subsea internet infrastructure that they bet could bolster global internet speeds and access.
Last year, Google alone owned around 16,790 km of submarine cables according to VentureBeat. More recently, Meta commissioned NEC Corporation to build the world’s highest capacity submarine cable between North America and Europe, capable of carrying 500 terabits per second. Those two tech giants also recently announced they were teaming up to build out a massive new cable connecting Japan to countries in Southeast Asia.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it isn’t the first time US tech companies have made significant pushes into emerging markets. Back in 2016 Facebook tried to court Indian government officials by offering a “free” mobile data program to the country’s residents called Free Basics. The catch, of course, was that Facebook would conveniently represent the single portal with which people could access the web. Officials banned Free Basic in India, but the program has made some inroads across Africa.
Meanwhile, satellite internet companies are hoping they will be able to provide connectivity to customers in rural areas ill-suited for running traditional fibre. SpaceX holds the lead here with its more than 1,800 launched Starlink satellites, but it could face competition from Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is spending big on licensees and recently acquired Facebook’s satellite internet team. It’s worth noting though that Amazon has launched a grand total of zero satellites into space so far. Overall, the satellite internet space is poised for an era of rapid, expensive consolidation in an attempt to potentially usurp traditional telecoms in remote areas.
The UN report further proves the increase in global internet access is more of a question of when rather than if. Who provides that access and whether or not the gains of that connectivity are dispersed fairly among communities though remains a giant unknown.