Internet’s potential remains largely untapped, says UN agency for digital technology

Launched to coincide with the opening of the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, the Global Connectivity Report 2022 argues that while easy and affordable access to fast broadband is nearly ubiquitous in most rich countries, large swaths of humanity remain excluded from the immense possibilities offered by the online experience, hampering economic development and widening global inequalities.

While the number of Internet users has grown from a few million in the early 1990s to almost five billion today, 2.9 billion people – roughly one third of humanity – remain completely disconnected, and many hundreds of millions more struggle with expensive services and poor quality access that do little to materially improve their lives.

The report advocates placing “universal and meaningful connectivity” – defined as the possibility of a safe, satisfying, rewarding, productive and affordable online experience for all – at the center of global development. It also assesses how close the world is to achieving this universal and meaningful connectivity, using the 2030 connectivity goals recently released by ITU and the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Technology. .

© UNICEF/Schermbrucke

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically increased internet traffic as many activities have moved online.

Cost remains a major barrier

The cost of broadband subscriptions and digital devices remains a major barrier to connectivity, the report confirms. While Internet access has become increasingly cheaper in wealthier countries, Internet access remains prohibitively expensive in many low- and lower-middle-income countries.

And although the cost of broadband – particularly mobile broadband – has come down significantly over the past decade, the majority of low- and middle-income economies are still below the global affordability target of 2% or less than the gross national income per capita set by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.

“Equitable access to digital technologies is not only a moral responsibility, it is essential for global prosperity and sustainability,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “We need to create the right conditions, including by promoting investment-friendly environments, to break cycles of exclusion and bring digital transformation to all.”

While the surge in demand for internet access linked to Covid-19 has brought some 800 million more people online, it has also dramatically increased the cost of digital exclusion, with people unable to connect being suddenly deprived of jobs, education, access to health advice, financial services, and much more.

“Universal and meaningful connectivity has become the global imperative of our decade,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which produced the report. “It’s no longer just about connecting people – the catalytic role of connectivity will also be absolutely critical to our success in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Still looking for the “missing link”

The “Missing Middle” report, published in 1984 by the Independent Commission for World Telecommunication Development established by the ITU, identified a clear correlation between access to telecommunications and socio-economic development and urged all countries to make connectivity a priority.

Almost 40 years later, this “missing link” persists, but has turned into several digital divides:

  • The income divide – the level of internet use in low-income countries (22%) remains well below that of high-income countries, which are approaching universal use (91%)
  • The urban-rural divide – the share of Internet users is twice as high in urban areas as in rural areas
  • The gender gap – globally, 62% of men use the internet, compared to 57% of women
  • The generation gap – in all regions, young people aged 15-24 are more avid internet users (72% online) than the rest of the population (57%)
  • The education gap – In almost every country where data is available, rates of internet use are higher for those with more education – in many cases, much higher.

The report notes that the greatest challenges in connecting the unconnected are no longer related to network coverage, but rather to adoption and usage.

With barely 5% of the world’s population still physically out of reach of a mobile broadband signal, the ‘coverage gap’ is now dwarfed by the ‘usage gap’: some 32% of people are within range of a mobile broadband network and could theoretically connect always remains offline, due to prohibitive costs, lack of access to a device or lack of awareness, skills or capacity to find useful content.

The things we share online can spread like wildfire and even a little sharing can have big consequences.

© UNICEF/UN051302/Herwig

The things we share online can spread like wildfire and even a little sharing can have big consequences.


While young people are enthusiastic users of online platforms and services in all parts of the world, gaping gaps between and within countries limit the ability of many young people to harness the online world to improve their lives.

Only 40% of school-aged children have internet access at home, and many of them can only access online services through a mobile phone with limited functionality for activities such as e-learning.

As the digital environment becomes more complex, children and young people also need more skills to critically understand the digital world in which they are increasingly immersed. Digital access and skills are key to ensuring that children and young people improve their prospects, and there is growing recognition that all stakeholders need to work together more effectively to protect young people from online risks.

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