Technological progress is a driving force behind economic growth, citizen engagement, and job creation. Information and communication technologies (ICTs), in particular, are reshaping many aspects of the world’s economies, governments, and societies.
In this context, access to the Internet has become a vital development tool. The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is a digital revolution that requires universal and reliable Internet access; without it, many developing countries will not be able to fully participate in an increasingly mobile and digital-based economy.
Public officials, businesses, and citizens in developing countries can harness the transformative power of ICTs to provide more efficient services, catalyze economic growth, and strengthen social networks. 95% of the global population now live in an area that is covered by a mobile-cellular network. In Tanzania, for example, mobile money agents now outnumber all other financial intermediaries by a factor of 10 to 1. More than half of Tanzanians living on less than $2 a day have access to mobile technology.
But even though the digital revolution is a global phenomenon, there are still huge disparities between and within countries when it comes to the penetration, affordability, and performance of ICT services.
While almost half of the world’s population in 2016 had access to the Internet, the penetration rate in the least developed countries was only 15%, or 1 in 7 individuals.
One contributing factor is that access to the Internet through mobile or fixed broadband remains prohibitively expensive in many developing countries, where lack of ICT infrastructure and regulatory bottlenecks hamper broadband development. As of December 2015, the cost of mobile-broadband services amounted to about 17% of the average monthly Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in the least developed countries, compared to just 5% globally.
The speed of broadband services also varies. Fixed-broadband speeds of 10 Mbit/s and higher are common in developed countries; by contrast, in the LDCs, only 7% of fixed-broadband services reach 10Mbit/s.
Under SDG # 9, the world set an ambitious target to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”. It is clear that governments, the private sector, and the international community have a lot to do to reach this target and bridge the digital divide.
But progress is possible. Effective ICT policy reform can trigger greater private investment in broadband infrastructure and make Internet access more affordable. Governments can also ensure fair taxation for the telecom industry, and use universal service funds to focus on broadband rollout, in partnership with others and under open access principles to develop healthy competition. These efforts will directly support poverty reduction and shared prosperity.
Last Updated: Apr 12, 2017