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Broadband Internet - The New Digital Divide?

The first decade of the twenty-first century has brought incredible progress in delivering access to communications to most of the world’s people. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 500 million mobile cellular telephone subscriptions; today we are approaching the 5 billion mark. Even amongst some of the world’s poorest nations, more than a quarter of the population now has access to a mobile phone.

But just as we are succeeding in bridging the original digital divide, we are seeing a new – and perhaps even more significant – divide appearing: between those who enjoy fast access to an online world increasingly rich in multimedia content, and those still struggling with slow, shared dial-up links.

Why is broadband access so important?

Not long ago, having access to the Internet, by any means, seemed more than enough. But today, broadband access is becoming essential, since many of the most effective applications and services which help foster development are only available through a high-speed Internet connection – and notably those related to telemedicine, e-commerce, e-banking and e-government. Broadband-based applications have a far greater impact on people, society and businesses than their narrowband equivalents.


"In the 21st century, affordable broadband access to the Internet is becoming as vital to social and economic development as networks like transport, water and power."
Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General


We have seen spectacular progress in access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in general, and millions of people in the world’s UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs) now have basic access to the Internet – but growth rates and access speeds are still nowhere near fast enough, especially in the developing world. So while Europe had a fixed broadband penetration rate of 20% at the end of 2008, and the Americas region had 13%, it was only 4% in Asia&Pacific, and just 0.1% in Africa – meaning just one fixed broadband subscriber in Africa per thousand people (see chart).



While broadband users speed along the fast lanes of the Internet superhighway, dial-up users are stuck on the hard shoulder, lacking almost all of the benefits of the full online experience.


At the beginning of 2009, developing countries accounted for just over a third (39%) of the 412 million fixed broadband subscribers around the world. If China – the largest fixed broadband market in the world – is excluded from the figures, then the developing country share drops to just 19%, or only one in six of the world’s fixed broadband Internet subscribers.

One of the main reasons for this glaring inequality is the massive disparity not just in the price but the affordability of a broadband connection. Broadband subscriptions cost less than 1% of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in the top 15 countries included in the fixed broadband Internet sub-basket published in the ITU’s 2009 report, Measuring the Information Society, and under 2.5% of GNI per capita in a further 25 countries. At the other end of the scale, however, in the lowest 30 countries in the list – most of which are LDCs – broadband subscriptions cost over 100% of GNI per capita. At that price, it’s little wonder they’re not more popular.

Mobile broadband

One answer may be mobile broadband. With extensive wireless networks already in place, and fixed-line networks poorly-maintained in most of the developing world, high-speed mobile technologies – such as 2.5G (GPRS, CDMA2000 1x) and 3G (WCDMA, CDMA EV-DO) – could provide an alternative platform for Internet access.

By the end of 2008, the majority of countries worldwide had launched and were commercially exploiting IMT-2000/3G networks – although a comparison of developed versus developing economies shows that mobile broadband uptake is clearly dominated by the developed world (see chart), with penetration at 31%, compared to just 1.5% in the developing world.

Nonetheless, by the beginning of 2009 there were an estimated 419 million mobile broadband subscribers worldwide – with mobile broadband subscriptions having overtaken fixed broadband subscribers.

For the moment, these trends show the huge potential of mobile broadband, and it should be remembered that just because mobile broadband subscriptions allow users to have data communications at broadband speeds, it does not necessarily mean that subscribers are actual users of those services (they may just be using their mobiles for telephone calls or SMS messages).

Room for optimism

The ITU’s ICT Development Index shows that there is tremendous room for optimism. There is still a significant divide between developed and developing countries, but over the five year period 2002-2007 great progress has been made, demonstrating how quickly developing countries have advanced.

One component of the Index is the ‘use’ sub-index, which measures the intensity of ICT use. The sub-index is made up of a weighted combination of Internet users per 100 inhabitants, fixed broadband internet subscribers per 100 inhabitants, and mobile broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Looking at the ‘use’ sub-index, some striking facts emerge:

  • In 2002, the UK had a ‘use’ sub-index value of 1.99, a value which was surpassed by Malaysia, Croatia, Poland and Jamaica in 2007.

  • In 2007, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Belarus and Bosnia overtook Italy’s 2002 ‘use’ sub-index value of 1.01

  • By 2007, Sudan and Kenya had both caught up with the 2002 ‘use’ sub-index values for Bulgaria and Brazil.

This is good news, but more needs to be done to ensure that the gap is narrowed. The problem is a complex one, with no single panacea that could be applied equally to all countries, but there are some strong pointers forward which will certainly help, including new innovations in regulatory and policy framework, investment in infrastructure, and commitments to education and capacity building.

It will also be important to:

  • Leverage the capability of broadband wireless technologies – including deploying high-speed mobile technology on the back of the existing cellular networks that are already so successful in developing nations.

  • Stimulate use of the Internet, by supporting national fibre-optic backbones and broadband rollout, for example, as Korea did in the late 1990s – making it today the world’s most advanced broadband market in terms of both penetration and service offerings.

  • Capitalize on the power of partnership and the cooperative will of the international community – through fruitful public-private partnerships, and initiatives such as ITU Connect, which targets developing countries on a region-by-region basis.

  • Reduce discrepancies and the high cost of international Internet bandwidth, the critical infrastructure which dictates the speed at which websites in other countries can be accessed. Worldwide, in 2007, 57 countries had less than 1Kbps of bandwidth per Internet user, and the Netherlands alone had close to twice the international Internet bandwidth of Latin America and the Caribbean combined.

Data and analysis in this article are drawn from a new ITU report – ‘Measuring the Information Society – The ICT Development Index. Published in March 2009, the full report is available online at

ITU’s Wireless Broadband Partnership

The ITU Wireless Broadband Partnership is mobilizing key stakeholders to finance, plan, build, operate and maintain wireless broadband infrastructure.

Some of this new broadband capacity is being allocated for public use, such as schools, hospitals/clinics and other government services.









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Updated : 2009-09-30