UN broadband goals are not being met, but mobile adoption impresses

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) published its latest 'State of Broadband' report on global broadband and Internet take-up with a rather dispiriting message: the digital divide is proving stubbornly persistent in terms of access to broadband services, and growth in both Internet and mobile cellular subscriptions appears to be slowing.

According to the data in the 2015 report, 43 per cent of the world's population is now online with some form of regular access to the Internet. This leaves 57 per cent -- or some 4.2 billion -- of the global population without access. In the least developed countries (LDCs), only one out of every ten people is online.

What's more, the UN Broadband Commission's 2011 targets have not been achieved by the target date of 2015 and seem unlikely to be achieved before 2020. Likewise, the milestone of 4 billion Internet users is unlikely to be surpassed before 2020. An even more alarming statistic for some might be that the growth in Facebook subscribers is now outpacing growth in the Internet.

By the end of 2015, some 3.2 billion people will be online (here, an Internet user is defined as someone who has used the Internet in the last three months), equating to over 43.4 per cent of the total world population, and up from 2.9 billion a year earlier (almost 40.6 per cent of the population).

The target had been for 60 per cent of the global population to be online by 2015, but this figure is now unlikely to be reached before 2021. Figures for the developing world and LDCs are also well behind target, and the headline figures mask strong disparities in some regions. For example, fewer than 7 per cent of households in LDCs have access, while in sub-Saharan Africa only one in nine households are connected.

Amid the gloom of missed targets and slowing growth, the bright spot here is mobile broadband. Indeed, the ITU notes that mobile broadband is the fastest-growing ICT service in history, taking just five years to achieve 1 billion users. By the end of 2015, there will be 3.5 billion mobile broadband subscriptions, amounting to nearly half (48.8 per cent) of all mobile subscriptions, although the report notes that the inclusion of dongles means that a direct comparison cannot be drawn.

Furthermore, mobile broadband subscriptions now outnumber fixed broadband subscriptions by a ratio of 4.4:1 (up from 3:1 in 2014). The ITU also cites Ovum predictions that mobile cellular subscriptions will increase to 8.5 billion by 2019, of which 6.5 billion will be mobile broadband subscriptions (note here that the number of MBB subscriptions would include multiple subscriptions by a single person).

UN Internet targets may not have been met, but without mobile we clearly would not even be close. Despite the gloomy headline statement, there is also some cause for cheer, and for people in many parts of the world the smartphone and tablet will continue to be their path towards online inclusion.

You can read the full report here -- Anne