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A New Look at the Global Digital Divide

According to Internet Live Stats, the number of Internet users in the world has risen dramatically in recent years.  While in 1995, only 1% of the world’s population had access to the Internet, in 2016, this rises to an estimated 46.1% of the population.  Indeed, for the past decade, this number has increased by roughly 3% per year.  This dynamics we are discussing are illustrated in the following chart:

users

When taken alone, these raw numbers, which provide merely the total numbers of Internet users across the globe, hide the massive disparity underlying the global digital divide.  When considering Internet penetration by country, this disparity becomes more obvious.  Let’s look at, for example, a map of global Internet penetration,with the countries adjusted to indicate population, prepared by Mark Graham and Stefano De Sabbata of Oxford’s Internet Geographies at the Oxford Internet Institute:

internetpopulation2011_hexcartogram_v7-01

While this map is highly revealing of the geographical disparity behind the global digital divide, it nonetheless uses data from 2011\.  The question is, what would this map look like today?  Using the per country data from the Internet Live Stats, itself being drawn from sources such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Population Division, Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), and World Bank, we have updated Graham and De Sabbata’s map to indicate global Internet penetration according the 2016 estimate:

2016

We can see that (Western) Europe has achieved a high degree of Internet penetration, a closer look at the statistics reveals that with one country, Iceland, now claims Internet access for 100% of its population! While Iceland is indeed a small and sparsely populated country, having roughly 332,000 inhabitants, this degree of penetration is indicative of a greater trend seen throughout the Scandinavian countries. These other countries, despite being much larger and having between 5 and 10 million inhabitants each, can all claim an incredibly high degree of Internet penetration. The highest is in Norway (98%), followed by Denmark (96.3%), Sweden (93.1%), and Finland (92.6%).  Indeed, of the top 10 most connected countries, all but the tiny island nation of Bermuda (97.4%), are found in Western Europe.

At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest degree of Internet penetration is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, which, despite great strides in recent years, remains largely unconnected.  In fact, four out of the five countries claiming less than 2% Internet penetration are found in this region, namely Guinea (1.8%), Somalia (1.7%), Burundi (1.5%), and finally Eritrea (1.1%).  Only Timor-Leste, otherwise known as East Timor, rivals this region with its degree of underconnectivity, with only 1.2% of the population connected.

When factoring in population, we see that China boasts the highest number of Internet users in the world (approx. 722 million), followed by India (approx. 462 million) and the USA (approx. 287 million).  However, given India’s relatively low degree of Internet penetration (34.8%), India can also claim the highest population of unconnected people in the world, with approx. 865 million people lacking access to the Internet.  This is followed by China (52.2%), where approx. 661 million people are without Internet access.  Third is Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, where connectivity is a mere 20.4%, leaving approx. 207 million without access to the Internet.

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