The Broadband Divide

During the early years of the decade, the topic of the digital divide received more coverage than it does now. As the Internet took off in Western developed nations, there was a deep preoccupation that developing countries would be left behind in the digital environment, condemning these economies to an unsurmountable spiral of poverty.  Several things happened to alleviate the concern, but not to solve the issue altogether. Internet take-up has been growing everywhere (see last year’s HDR for some figures), even though there is still inequality between richer and poorer countries. The World Summit of the Information Society also helped to alleviate some concerns by making clear statements about digital inclusion.

Fast forward some years, and the problem of the digital divide is still with us. While Internet user numbers have been going up even in least developed economies, a new problem is emerging, the lack of broadband connections and/or its prohibitive cost. The United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has published its Information Economy Report 2009, and it makes for an interesting yet rather depressing read. Talking about broadband, the report says:

“The number of fixed broadband subscribers around the world was an estimated 398 million at the end of 2008. Developing countries accounted for almost 40 per cent of these, making broadband one of the few ICTs where developed countries still represent the majority of users (figure I.8, top). Global average broadband penetration stood at 5.9, with striking differences between developed and developing economies (figure I.8, bottom). Average penetration was more than eight times higher in the former (24) than in the latter (2.8). Moreover, this gap appears to be widening: broadband penetration in developed countries grew by 2.9 points in 2008, more than the overall average penetration rate in developing countries, which achieved an increase of only 0.7 points. Transition economies lag even further behind, with an average penetration of 2.6.”

Hopefully highlighting the problem in this way may help to bring the issue to the forefront of policy discussion again. Broadband is a requisite for development, as the wired economy requires fast connections as more services go online.

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