Is Global Internet Growth Slowing?

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Yes, but more people than ever are online, creating a “small base problem.” And the rural areas left for development are more isolated and dispersed.

By Rick Paulas

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(Photo: tnwanderer/Flickr)

In 2010, UNESCO and the International Telecommunication Union established the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, a 62-member committee with specific aims: “boosting the importance of broadband on the international policy agenda, and expanding broadband access in every country as key to accelerating progress towards national and international development targets.”

Every fall, the commission releases a massive State of Broadband report that details who’s online, who’s not, and why. This past year’s was a mixed bag. There are 3.2 billion people online, an increase from 2.9 billion the previous year. But that only accounts for 43 percent of the world’s population, and the committee’s goal is 60 percent by 2020.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding from the report is that broadband growth rates are continuing to slow down: In the early 2010s, the rate was in the double digits; in 2014, it fell to 8.6 percent; in 2015, it’s dropped to 8.1 percent. Is this a troubling sign for the future of access? Or just statistical noise?

An important consideration when discussing global broadband rates is that there’s no rock-solid speed threshold that needs to be met everywhere in the world. That’s due to the variance in the availability of resources: What’s available in Nepal isn’t the same as what’s available in Germany. More than that, though, most places in the world simply need less Internet than an urban metropolis.

“The needs of downtown Manhattan are completely different than rural Arkansas,” says Phillippa Biggs, the lead author and editor of the report. “What’s important is that you have good connectivity where people are.”

“The study of how Internet is spreading is really an exercise in geospatial economics.”

This is why the United Nations committee doesn’t have a threshold, other than the global baseline of 256 kilobits per second, the standard definition of “broadband”; that’s unlikely to change any time soon. “Technology is evolving faster than the industry’s ability to keep up,” Biggs says. “The boundaries of what is possible are changing all the time. It’s just not possible everyone would be on the same page everywhere.”

With that context in mind, is the broadband slowdown really some portent of doom?

Biggs doesn’t necessarily think so, at least not because of the numbers themselves. She points to the “small base problem” of statistics: If you have an Internet population of one person, and next year you hook up one more person, your growth rate is 100 percent. But the following year, when you get one more person hooked up, your growth rate is down to 50 percent. “As more come online, you expect slower growth rates,” she says.

Rather, slower growth rates point toward the next big hurdle in global connectivity: rural communities. “What [the slowing growth rate] implies is that we’ve connected a large number of the urban elites. People with good education, money, jobs to pay for Internet, usually living in the main cities,” Biggs says. “Now, we’re pushing beyond the main towns and out into the rural areas.” And there are quite a few hurdles in stretching broadband out into those areas. “There’s not as many people, so the absolute size of the market isn’t as big,” Biggs says. “Also, the incomes are often somewhat lower.”

Is that to say we’ve hit a kind of wall in connectivity? It depends, according to Biggs, on whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist.

“The good news is that there are 4G launches every single day, including in very remote towns. So, 4G is on a massive growth expansion at the moment,” Biggs says. “The bad news is that it’s mainly replicating the growth patterns we’ve seen with 3G and 2G, in the capital cities and the main urban centers. The study of how Internet is spreading is really an exercise in geospatial economics.”

But it doesn’t have to be. The way we currently look at Internet spread is through the lens of private business, with the pool of money available dictating which areas of the world get what type of access. If the pool’s deep, private ISPs fight over bringing in service. If the pool’s shallow, the area remains a wasteland. Maybe it’s time to shift the Internet into a public utility: where the objective is making sure that everyone has access. The U.N.’s slogan, after all, is “Leave No One Behind.”

There’s a precedent: The implementation of the European emergency phone network 9–9–9, starting with London’s system in 1937, has allowed anyone to contact emergency services, no matter where they live. “People felt that just because you lived in a rural area doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to tell people you were in trouble,” Biggs says.

Perhaps the biggest indication that things are moving in the right direction is that people are spending time considering ways to improve the situation. Before you fix a problem, you must acknowledge it exists.

One thing’s for certain, though: Demand for Internet isn’t going to slow down . “The Internet is quite addictive,” Biggs says. “Once you start using it, you quickly develop a taste for it, so demand is snowballing all the time.”

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