How Do Emerging Economies Compare In Terms of Internet Access?
The Internet has become an integral part of life across the world as well as a huge driver of economic growth, but a comparison of country by country shows that some parts of the world continue to play catch up in terms of Internet infrastructure and access. In those emerging economies where Internet access has taken off, the effects have been transformative.
Research into household access to the Internet shows that, by region, the dominant region in 2015 was Europe, with 82.1 percent of households enjoying online access, but that the figure for Asia-Pacific and Africa was 39 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively. Using a global perspective, the expansion of Internet access has been extraordinary. Information compiled by the website Internetlivestats.com shows that in 2000, just 6.8 percent of the world’s population had access to the Internet. By 2015, that figure had grown to 43.4 percent.
Figures compiled by the Pew Research Center show that, on average, 45 percent of people across 21 emerging and developing economies said they used the Internet or a smartphone on occasion during 2013. By 2015, that figure had increased to 54 percent, with much of the increase attributable to such economies as China, Malaysia, and Brazil. What that trend shows is that as economies become increasingly prosperous, Internet usage increases. The average figure for Internet/smartphone use in developed economies for 2015 was 87 percent, demonstrating just how far behind developing countries are in terms of Internet usage.
Research has shown interesting differences globally in time spent online and what the Internet is used for. It may surprise some people to learn that regions with lower Internet usage rates are home to the keenest users of social networks. The Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of Internet users in the Middle East use social networks, with the figure for Latin America and Africa being 82 percent and 76 percent, respectively. The figures for the US and across a sample of six European countries are 71 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
Aside from infrastructure and access, a significant factor in the availability of the Internet is censorship by the governing authorities in various countries. Unfortunately, censorship of the Internet is a common problem. The regimes in countries such as Iran and China have carried out wide scale Internet censorship, primarily for political reasons. In recent years, whole scale censoring of the Internet has given way to filtering, with specific content being censored in line with the political or social landscape of a country at a particular point in time, such as during election cycles.
Ehsan Bayat is one of those individuals determined to use the Internet to foster progress and economic growth. In 2002, he joined up with the government in his native Afghanistan to set up the Afghan Wireless Communication Company. It has become one of the leading players in Internet and mobile phone provision in a country that was at one time largely cut off from the outside world, owing to the prevalence of conflict and political unrest. Bayat’s goal with the Afghan Wireless Communication Company and Ariana Television Network (ATN), the venture he established in 2005, has been the empowering of people through improved communications with each other and the outside world, demonstrating in the process the power of digital technologies and the Internet to aid human progress.
Looking to the future, the more exciting developments in Internet access and usage will come in those developing countries where such access has been limited to date. It is interesting to note the use of the Internet in somewhere like Africa to help modernize the system of cashless payments prevalent in some parts of the African continent, whereby people working far from home send money back for the benefit of family members using the type of financial intermediaries that those living in the West would be largely unfamiliar.
In terms of how people access the Internet, 4G is already the standard for access in Western countries, and emerging countries, such as India, are rapidly embracing it also. In time, it is expected that a majority of the world’s population will have 4G available to them, meaning better download speeds. In addition, 5G will start coming on stream. The importance of the Internet as a development tool is reflected in the inclusion of information technology infrastructure by the United Nations in its sustainability goals.
As digital technology continues to expand globally, regions that have previously found themselves marginalized from a communications perspective will find new paths for integration into the broader global economy opening up to them.