More Urgent Than Ever: Universal Connectivity To Bring 3.7 Billion People Online


By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau

The newly-launched Measuring Digital Development: Facts and figures 2020 report estimates that 51 per cent of the world population, or 4 billion people, were online in 2019.

This means that 3.7 billion people were not connected to the Internet and were therefore not able to take advantage of the transformative power of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

This number is higher than the estimate of 3.6 billion given in the 2019 edition of Facts and Figures.

The story behind the statistics

To understand the difference between these two figures, it is important to first understand how ITU statisticians collect data.

Twice per year, ITU statisticians collect data on telecommunication and ICT infrastructure, access, and use for about 200 economies.

The data, typically sourced from regulators and national statistical offices, cover the previous three years, and form the basis of modelled estimates for the current year.

Following this procedure, in 2019, ITU estimated that 54 per cent of the world’s population was using the Internet in 2019 – that was 4.1 billion people.

What happened in 2020?

In our data collection this year, we received new data for 2019 and revised data for previous years.

The result?

Based on this new and revised data, we adjusted our 2019 estimate down from 54 to 51 per cent – that is from 4.1 to 4.0 billion people using the Internet.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted normal patterns and trends in ICT statistics, as well as people’s behaviour in using (or not using) ICTs.

That means for some of the indicators, including the number of Internet users, ITU statisticians were not able to produce estimates for 2020.

3.7 billion are offline

This revised number underscores the urgency of advancing universal connectivity to bring 3.7 billion people online even more.

In the wake of the COVID crisis, there can no longer be any doubt that dramatically accelerating progress on every one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) means making considerable headway to extend digital connectivity to the 3.7 billion still totally cut off from the online world.

One thing this pandemic has dramatically and irrevocably reinforced is the vital importance of connectivity.

ICT networks and services are helping us continue our important work, stay in touch with family, and keep our children learning through remote schooling.

In other words, connectivity has been the “hidden hero” of this crisis.

But billions of people around the world still have no connectivity at all. In addition, many hundreds of millions more struggle with access that is too slow, too costly, and too unreliable to have made a meaningful difference to their lives during this crisis.

So when we set about defining a ‘new normal’ for our post-COVID world, let us agree that this ‘new normal’ must be based on inclusive connectivity for all, and access to broadband for everyone.

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