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Digital Divide Grows

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has recently released its 2021 edition of Facts and Figures – the annual global assessment of digital connectivity. The report offers a snapshot of the most important ICT indicators, including estimates for the current year. These​ show that an estimated 4.9bn people are using the Internet in 2021, or 63% of the world’s population. This is an increase of almost 17% since 2019, with almost 800m people estimated to have come online during that period.

Data reveal a connectivity ‘Grand Canyon’ separating the digitally empowered from the digitally excluded, with 96% of the 2.9bn still offline living in the developing world. Location plays a big part: the figures reveal that the share of Internet users in urban areas is twice as high as in rural areas. There is also a generational gap – 71% of the world’s population aged 15-24 is using the Internet, compared with 57% of all other age groups; and gender remains a factor – globally, 62% of men are using the Internet compared with 57% of women. While that digital gender divide has been narrowing across all regions, women remain digitally marginalized in many of the world’s poorest countries, where online access could potentially have its most powerful effect.

To put this into Africa’s context, the continent has the lowest rate of internet connectivity of any region in the world. But that also means it has the highest potential for new growth. During the pandemic in 2020, 20m more Africans subscribed to a mobile service than in the previous year, according to Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), with 4G connections set to double over the next 4 years. Tech giants such as Google — which expects hundreds of millions more people to come online across the continent for the first time in the next few years — are moving quickly in the race for Africa’s digital inclusion. Last year, Google’s joint report with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation forecasted that Africa’s “e-conomy” value would reach $180bn by 2025. Google has committed a $1bn investment in Africa, announced last month — focusing on grants for businesses, supporting entrepreneurship, and a significant infrastructure plan to broaden internet access across the continent.

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