It depends how you measure it. One metric popular with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN body, counts being online as having used the internet in the past three months.
It means people are not assumed to use the internet simply because they live in a town with an internet cable or near a wifi tower. By this yardstick, some 3.58 billion people, or 48% of the global population, were online by the end of 2017. The number should reach 3.8 billion, or 49.2%, by the end of 2018, with half of the world being online by May 2019.
Fixed-line internet connections are expensive in developing countries, so most people connect through their mobile phones. The trend leads to a two-tier experience of the internet that is hidden by growth figures. What can be done on a mobile phone is a fraction of what can be achieved with a desktop, laptop or tablet, as anyone who has tried to file their tax return on their mobile will know.
The popularity of mobile internet leads to other issues too. In Africa, for example, the telcos incentivise people to buy 20MB to 1GB data bundles by offering access to key apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Gmail and Twitter, even when they run out of data. The upshot is that people associate the internet with those platforms rather than the open web. Some even fail to realise they are using the internet.
In some countries nearly everyone is online. More than 98% of Icelanders are on the internet, with similar percentages in Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg and Bahrain, the ITU says. In Britain about 95% are online, compared with 85% in Spain, 84% in Germany, 80% in France and only 64% in Italy.
Meanwhile, a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center found that 89% of Americans are online. The unconnected tend to be poorer, older, less educated and rural. The west does not dominate the online world, though. While the US has around 300 million internet users, China notched up more than 800 million in 2018, with 40% of its population still unconnected. India reached an estimated 500 million internet users this year, with 60% of the nation still offline.
A minute on the internet looks like this: 156m emails, 29m messages, 1.5m Spotify songs, 4m Google searches, 2m minutes of Skype calls, 350,000 tweets, 243,000 photos posted on Facebook, 87,000 hours of Netflix, 65,000 pictures put on Instagram, 25,000 posts on Tumblr, 18,000 matches on Tinder, and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube.
Most consumer internet traffic is video: add up all the online video watched on websites, YouTube, Netflix and webcams and you have 77% of the world’s internet traffic, according to US tech firm Cisco.
There is a stark divide between the haves and have-nots and poverty is an overwhelming factor. In the urban centres of some African nations, internet access is routine.
More than half of South Africans and Moroccans are online, and parts of other countries, such as Botswana, Cameroon and Gabon, are connecting fast. Mobile phones are driving growth thanks to mobile broadband costs falling 50% in the past three years.
But plenty of places are not keeping pace. In Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, around 30 to 40% can get online. In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone only 7 to 11% are online.
In Eritrea and Somalia, less than 2% have access. To build a mobile hotspot in a remote, off-grid village can cost three times the urban equivalent, which reaches far more people and so brings a much greater return on investment. In rural communities, there is often little demand for the internet because people do not see the point: the web does not serve their interests.
There is a clear age divide: far fewer older people use the internet than younger people. In Britain, where 99% of 16- to 34-year-olds are online, the 75-and-overs make up more than half of the 4.5 million adults who have never used the internet, according to the Office of National Statistics.
There is a serious gender gap too. In two-thirds of the world’s nations, men dominate internet usage. Globally, there are 12% fewer women online than men. While the digital gender gap has narrowed in most regions since 2013, it has widened in Africa. There, 25% fewer women than men use the internet, the ITU says.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, men outnumber women online by nearly two-to-one, while in India, 70% of internet users are men. The divide largely reflects patriarchal traditions and the inequalities they instil.
Some countries buck the trend, notably Jamaica, where more women than men are online. This may be because more women than men enrol at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. The country has the highest proportion of female managers in the world.
A major challenge is to get affordable internet to poor, rural regions. With an eye on expanding markets, US tech firms hope to make inroads. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, scrapped plans for solar powered drones and is now focusing on high-altitude balloons to provide the internet from the edge of space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and a company called OneWeb have their own plans to bring internet access to everyone in the world via constellations of microsatellites.
Facebook, which saw its Free Basics service banned under India’s net neutrality laws, has also abandoned plans for internet-beaming drones and is now working with local companies to provide affordable mobile services.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is using TV white spaces – the unused broadcast frequencies – for wireless broadband. Another approach, community networks, is also gaining ground. These mobile networks typically use solar-powered stations and are built by and for local communities. Run by cooperatives, they are cheaper than the alternatives and keep skills and profits in the area.
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