The hidden digital divide

The unstoppable global spread of the internet is encouraging, but wider access alone won’t close the data gap.

Tracking the path of the digital divide is no mean feat.

Twenty years after it was first used, the term still means different things to different people. For some, it’s a simple yes-no answer to the question of whether someone has access to digital technology.

But many argue that it involves other factors such as the types of technologies on offer, for example basic mobile phones, smartphones or laptops. Each device can perform different tasks and works with the internet in different ways. Connectivity also differs, ranging from nonexistent to strong and reliable. It is not just about who is online and who is offline, but about how people use the internet.

To assess what people in different regions can do in reality with each device, we analysed 172 countries — home to 96 per cent of the world’s population — to estimate the number of telecommunication subscriptions, such as a contract for a mobile phone or broadband internet. This is roughly equivalent to how many internet-enabled devices can be found in a given country. Although some people may have more than one subscription for each device, for example, two SIM cards so they can access separate mobile networks via a single phone, it provides a general picture of how many people are connected to the internet.

We also analysed communication capacity, that is, the amount of data each device can process. Combining the two data sets provides an estimate of average internet capacity per person, or how much data each person can exchange through their device in each country at a given point in time. As a final step, we tracked how this capacity changed over time for four sets of countries grouped by their average national income. Countries were classified as lower, lower middle, upper middle and high income based on their gross national income (the total domestic and foreign output of a country’s citizens) per capita.


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