When I lived in Zambia as a kid in the 1980s, the nearest telephone was 50 miles away. My mom would use one whole day traveling to make a single phone call to our family back in Denmark whenever a message was more important than just using ordinary mail with a transit time of 1 to 3 months.
These days, we often hear that the majority of people in Africa own a mobile phone, which is in it itself a significant progress in terms of day-to-day communication. However, regular access to the internet is another story. But what does access to the internet mean in terms of development potential? Obviously a lot.
We are not talking about access to electricity. Only 25% of Africans have access to reliable electricity, but as I have seen first hand, this does not prevent access to the internet by smartphone. Small solar chargers and kiosks that offer phone charging are abundant.
The Inclusive Internet Index, commissioned by Facebook and conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit, provides a tool to measure the relevance of accessible and affordable connection to the internet. The tools site elaborates:
The aim of the Inclusive Internet Index is to provide researchers and policymakers with the information they need to enable the beneficial use of the Internet, irrespective of age, gender, location or background.
Writer and blogger Sandra Chimpala at the Zambian tech blog TechTrends that made me aware of this tool, is not exactly proud of her country’s overall ranking as 81st out of 85 total in the survey. Countries like Kenya (57th), Nigeria (56th) and South Africa (39th) are significantly ahead. Sweden ranks 1st and the US ranks 3rd.
However, I have seen lately that progress is well underway in Zambia. The last time I traveled in the country for a few weeks, I experienced only one spot in a very remote area without mobile data access, and affordability of smartphones is rising too. In contrast, in a radius of only 50 miles of where I live in Denmark I can guide you to a couple of locations where your phone simply has no access to anything (Today the Danish government actually announced that $15 million will be spent to eradicate 25,000 locations with no or poor access).
The index has different categories for ranking countries, and it is worth noting the differences between them. 4 main categories account for how each country scores, and they can rank very differently within each of them:
- Availability: the quality and breadth of available infrastructure required for access and levels of Internet usage.
- Affordability: the cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the Internet marketplace.
- Relevance: the existence and extent of local language content and relevant content.
- Readiness: the capacity to access the Internet, including skills, cultural acceptance, and supporting policy. (Note: Denmark ranks 45th and Zambia 73rd, not that big a difference!)
Two questions come to mind: what is in fact the pace of expansion of access to the internet to the last frontiers? And will it even be an issue when systems like StarLink go online?
The executive summary on the tools site provides some answers:
Internet connectivity grew 8.3% over the past year, with a 65.1% increase in low-income countries.
The mobile Internet gap between the rich and poor is shrinking.
The gender gap in Internet inclusion is still far too pervasive.
Internet use is empowering, especially to citizens in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
We are of course already witnessing internet access expansion of an exponential pace, and even land-based cell tower access would probably reach smartphones in the hand of any inhabitant of the world in the next couple of decades, but if low-orbit space internet is going to be as cheap as it actually has the potential to be, thanks to cheaper space launch technology, this might happen within a decade.
What do you think? Does this spell the end of information poverty? Could we possibly be only a few years away from global, affordable, fast, internet access?
Keep an eye on the Inclusive Internet Access tool in the years to come.