June 30, 2022

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New research reveals that the digital divide is much worse than previously thought

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Surveys in 9 countries finds huge gap between the number of people with insufficient basic access and those with the meaningful connection they need to make the most of the internet

  • Only around 1 of every 10 people across 9 low and middle income countries studied have meaningful connectivity, compared to over 4 of every 10 people with basic access.
  • People with meaningful internet connectivity are around a third more likely to do essential activities online, like take a class or access healthcare.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Today, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) published the first ever multi-country study of Meaningful Connectivity, a measure of whether someone can regularly access the internet on an appropriate device with sufficient data and a fast connection.

The nine-country survey found that just 1 of every 10 people have meaningful connectivity, compared to over 4 of every 10 people with basic access. These findings highlight that while digital divides between those who are online and offline remain, there are also substantial inequalities among those who are online.

In Colombia, while 2 of every 3 people have basic access, only 1 of every 4 Colombians have meaningful connectivity. In Rwanda, 1 of every 5 people have basic access, but less than 1 of every 160 Rwandans have meaningful connectivity.

These findings reveal that the digital divide, traditionally understood as the gap between those who are online and those offline, is far greater when quality of access is taken into account.

The existing measure used to calculate whether someone has internet access—any internet use in the last three months—greatly overestimates connectivity. Globally, while 2 in 3 people are now considered to have basic access, billions lack the quality of access they need to make the most of the internet and for connectivity to transform societies. 

Meaningful connectivity can mean the difference between access to education, banking and healthcare—or none of them. Using this measure raises the bar for internet access and provides governments with a new target for delivering online services.

Teddy Woodhouse, lead researcher, said:

“We have long known that the current metric of whether someone is counted as online or offline is insufficient. But now this data shows how much that definition massively underestimates rates of connectivity across the globe—deterring progress to secure the benefits of a digital society for all people. If we don’t truly understand the scale of the problem, we can’t adequately address it.”  

Being without meaningful connectivity has significant implications for what people are able to do online and how they live their lives. The report found that internet users with meaningful connectivity experience a range of social and personal benefits. 

Users with meaningful connectivity were around a third more likely than users with basic access to do essential activities online like access healthcare, take a class, look for a job, or participate in the digital economy. They were 12% more likely to have posted something on social media, and 13% more likely to know the date of the next elections. 

Sonia Jorge, Executive Director at A4AI, said:

“It is no longer enough to measure who is online versus who is offline. The internet’s most powerful features—video calling, streaming, education and health services—demand a high quality of access. If all you have is a basic device on a low-speed connection, you don’t have the internet connection you need to fully participate in our digital world.

It has never been more clear that internet access is a basic right.. It is now time that governments recognise that if people are to harness the full power of the internet to transform lives and societies, quality of access matters. We need to raise the bar for internet access. We need to aim for meaningful connectivity.”  

Meaningful connectivity represents the pivot point from simply consuming information to fully participating online. 

The report encourages governments to raise the bar for internet access for everyone, or risk leaving billions of people out of the digital revolution and deepening existing inequalities. It urges them to adopt meaningful connectivity as their target for internet access to enable more digital education and healthcare, power new businesses and grow their economies.

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