Exposing the global digital divide: 3.5 billion people have no internet access

The global population is approximately 7.8 billion, of which 3.5 billion are excluded from the benefits of the internet, to put our connectivity issue into perspective. The problem did not start at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has driven the issue to the front of conversations again. 

From February 8th to the 17th, U.N. Web T.V. will broadcast the 59th Session of the Commission for Social Development to discuss the critical role that digital technology plays and concrete measures for countries, businesses, and NGOs to close the digital divide to ensure access to technology, including the most marginalized populations. 

The opening session will include statements by the President of the General Assembly Volkan Bozkir, the President of the Economic and Social Council, Munir Akram, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Mr. Liu Zhenmin, as well as senior government officials from Colombia, Argentina, and Germany, and 5-panel discussions with Ministers, senior U.N. system officials, academic experts. 

With mandatory lockdowns and regulation-imposed social distancing, having access to digital connectivity has become central to building resilient communities that can grow, stay informed, and continue their education or work despite the challenges. For youth, studies show that a curriculum involving digital media can improve early literacy skills. Research also indicates that apps and games enhance youths’ ability to multitask. Numerous apps, software programs, and video games promote cooperative aspects of interaction, encouraging others to achieve common goals.

Technology has brought advancements in agriculture, electricity, transportation, education, business, finance, and healthcare, accessible to those who live in an environment that fosters digital literacy and ease of affordable connectivity. And those left out are not only in developing countries but in developed countries as well. According to the FCC, “97% of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed, fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65% and on tribal lands to 60%. In total, nearly 30 million Americans cannot fully benefit from the digital age.”

According to an International Telecommunication Union report, the internet penetration rate is 87% in the developed countries, but just 47% in developing countries and 19% in the least developing countries. Other obstacles to the internet, especially in developing countries, besides infrastructure and economic barriers, is governmental regulation, blackouts, and control based on political and censorship purposes. 

Only a small percentage of the Ethiopian population has access to the internet, and that small population is heavily monitored. China has widespread internet access, but it has one of the world’s most advanced and extensive censorship systems. Access to internet data plans in Cuba are too are expensive for the average citizen. There are reportedly only 30 websites available inside North Korea, and the majority are government sites. The Iranian government tightly controls its citizens’ internet access, blocking criticism of the government and Western sites and applications. 

These technical, economic, infrastructure, and political issues keeping billions of people in the dark will be the main talking point at the United Nations as top thought leaders discuss a way forward. The 59th Session, with its theme of “Socially just transition towards sustainable development: the role of digital technology on social development and well-being,” is expected to conclude with recommendations on how countries can provide digital technology for all. 

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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