The Broadband Connectivity Ecosystem at 51% Adoption

1.1 Surpassing a critical threshold

In 2019, the world celebrates crossing major thresholds in global internet adoption. Fifty years ago, in 1969, when the very first data packets were transmitted over what is now known as the internet, the internet only comprised four network nodes at universities in the United States. Today, the latest data from network equipment manufacturer Cisco Systems estimates 21.7 billion devices are connected. Whereas the first packets were only a few kilobits in order to send the letters ‘L’ and ‘O’ (for ‘login’, before the network crashed), today on average over 74,500 GB of data are sent every single second.

1.2 Characteristics of the broadband connectivity ecosystem today

With the public internet reaching a stage of significant size, reach and age, growth is slowing in several respects as the internet, and internet adoption, matures. Several data points highlight how growth has slowed in overall internet adoption, as well as in subsets of the global population. The 2019 version of the Inclusive Internet Index, released by Facebook and the EIU in February, notes that growth in the percentage of households connected to the internet slowed, rising only slightly to 54.8% from a level of 53.1% in the previous year’s report. For low-income countries, household internet adoption improved by a mere 0.8% on average.

1.3 Increasing hesitancy to participate online

The internet has made communication quicker and easier, helping people keep in touch, obtain news and information, enhance their education and access financial services, health information, clean energy and water. Online technology contributes to the empowerment of citizens globally, including women and those who are most marginalized.43 At the same time, concerns about the negative impacts of the internet are on the rise.

1.4 Benefits of digital connectivity are more defined than ever

Despite the potential risks for users participating online, the benefits and opportunities provided by the internet have never been so clearly measurable. At a macroeconomic level, economic impact literature continues to demonstrate the significant impact of broadband connectivity. A landmark analysis conducted by ITU reviewed the impact of broadband, digital transformation and the interplay on ICT regulation on national economies.

1.5 Understanding the heterogeneity of current and future online citizens

The remaining gaps in connectivity adoption are driven by divides across several types: geographies (urban vs rural), income levels (high vs low income groups), age and gender, among others. These divides highlight the characteristics of current offline populations that require targeted actions designed to increase adoption and participation online.

1.6 Thoughtful approaches towards meaningful universal connectivity

The overall challenges that remain include ensuring the global community tackles the issues that are threatening current internet use, as well as identifying what strategies will need to be adjusted to drive the next 49% of global adoption. As noted above, various digital divides remain, and concerted and context-specific actions will be required to address each one. In many cases, these are “second level digital divides”: gaps that persist, and/or may increase, even after coverage and access issues are addressed, as they are driven more by differences in embedded structures such as limitations in skills, literacy, user empowerment and availability of relevant content.