2.9 Billion Reasons to Worry

More than one-third of the world’s population is still not connected to the internet. It’s a global scandal and a growing crisis. The International Telecommunication Union convened governments, NGOs, and businesses in Kigali, Rwanda for an effort to expand access.

From left: Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau; Paula Ingabire, Rwanda’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology and Innovation; Juliana Novaes, ITU Generation Connect Visionaries Board Member.

One number was mentioned incessantly at the three-day Partner2Connect Digital Development Roundtable I just attended in Kigali, Rwanda: 2.9 billion people are still not connected to the internet. That’s more than one-third of the world’s population. It’s a global scandal and a growing crisis. The roundtable, hosted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency for digital technology, drew high-level participants from governments and businesses all over the world. They urgently want to expand internet access everywhere.

The Partner2Connect Digital Coalition is the ITU’s 9-month-old project to get governments, businesses, and NGOs to pledge specific efforts to get those billions of people online. This “multistakeholder alliance,” developed with the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, aims to jump-start concrete programs to increase access, especially in what the UN defines as Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Those acronyms were heard repeatedly in Kigali.

At the roundtable, country after country declared their plans to install more fiber, connect more schools, train more citizens in digital literacy, and take myriad actions that will bring more people online. Botswana, for example, pledged onstage that it would expand its national optical fiber backbone from 11,000 kilometers to 15,000 kilometers–bringing broadband to thousands of additional towns and villages, “so every child by 2024 will be using ICTs [UN-speak for technology] to learn,” said Thulagano Segokgo, Botswana’s Minister of Communications, Knowledge, and Technology. (It was evident that government agencies and titles all over the world are becoming more focused on this challenge. Just about every nation–except, notably, the United States–now has a minister or cabinet secretary devoted to technology and connectivity.)

The energy at the gathering of over 1,000 advocates for connectivity was high. This group has had a collective epiphany–if the world doesn’t connect the unconnected, then economic growth, societal health, and our ability to address the climate crisis will be badly undermined. The relationship between digital connection and progress was repeatedly emphasized. “The digital divide disadvantages a large proportion of humanity,” declared Henri Verdier, Ambassador for Digital Affairs in France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. Lowering that 2.9 billion number is not just a moral imperative. Disconnected people earn less, suffer more, have poorer health, and, among other problems, will be more prone to migrate as their lives worsen.

But Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which conceived and hosted the gathering, was ebullient at the progress in pledges. “It gives me goosebumps,” she said on stage more than once, speaking of the surge in global action evidenced by the more than 360 pledges so far, more than 80 just during the roundtable.

Cambodia pledged to redouble its efforts in a variety of ways. “Digital transformation can help solve global problems,” said Sok Puthyvuth of Cambodia’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication. He proudly noted that the cost of a mobile broadband subscription in Cambodia is only 2.6% of its GDP per capita, lower than in most countries the UN defines as “least developed.” (The ITU says the figure should be 2% or less worldwide.)

A Nigerian official pledged that 70% of its population would have broadband access by 2025 (though someone behind me whispered loudly, “That’s impossible.”).  Vodafone South Africa, one of many companies in attendance, pledged to increase 4G transmission sites in the country to 5,400.

To bolster its case that renewed action is essential all over the world, the ITU released its Global Connectivity Report 2022. It shows serious progress—800 million additional people came online amidst a surge in demand during the Covid pandemic. But it also shows the need for urgent action, for example how few low-income countries meet that 2% of GDP per capita threshold for mobile broadband costs.

Most worrisome is the new statistic that while only 5% of the world’s population remains out of range of a mobile broadband signal, 32% of humanity could get service but still is not online. The reasons are many, including “prohibitive costs, lack of access to a device, or lack of awareness, skills or the ability to find useful content.” Only 40% of school-age children worldwide have home access to the net, the report says, shockingly.

It also identifies what it calls “multiple digital divides”:

  • Income divide–only 22% of people use the net in low-income countries, compared to 91% in rich countries.
  • Gender divide–while 62% of men are online, only 57% of women are.
  • Urban-rural divide–internet use is twice as high in cities as in rural areas.
  • Generation divide–72% of people age 15-24 are online, while only 57% of older people are.
  • Education divide–internet use everywhere is much higher among people with greater education.

But my main takeaway from my trip to Kigali was that a striking unanimity has emerged quickly–this is a crisis, and it must be addressed. The passion of commitment to this project was palpable whether I was speaking to someone from Mongolia or Honduras. It felt amazing to be in the heart of Africa, with people from just about every country on earth, collectively committed to bringing this essential utility to everyone.

All of us were constantly on our own phones and computers, constantly reminded of just how appalling it must be in today’s world to be denied such indispensable tools. An economic, and a moral, crisis.

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