The rapid growth of Internet access in emerging economies, experts say, reflects a growing recognition by governments and multilateral organizations that expanding access is an economic imperative in a globalized world. Though most of the increase Pew found came in a handful of the largest emerging economies, including China, Malaysia and Brazil, Pew found that emerging economies on the whole appear to be "catching up” to their developed peers.
Even so, the digital divide remains pronounced. A country's per capita income remains one of the strongest indicators of whether an individual uses the Internet. Among the world's 11 most advanced economies, a median of 87 percent are Internet users, Pew found. At 94 percent, South Korea had the highest percentage, followed by Australia (93 percent), Canada (90 percent), the United States (89 percent) and the United Kingdom (89 percent).
Africa and South Asia, meanwhile, continued to lag far behind. Several of the countries surveyed — including Burkina Faso, Uganda and Ethiopia — have Internet usage rates below 20 percent. Even Africa’s two largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, have relatively meager figures — just 42 and 39 percent, respectively. Even as mobile Internet infrastructure improves in the poorest regions of the world, income inequality within these countries appears to be a major obstacle. In India, for example, the high cost of data services relative to the per capita income puts connectivity out of reach for roughly 78 percent of Indians.
Overall, though, Pew's findings suggest the continued growth of mobile Internet access is key to shrinking the digital divide. The 16 percent increase in smartphone ownership — in some countries, such as Turkey, the jump was as high as 42 percent — since 2013 is encouraging, experts say, bolstering the predictions of many economists that the upwards trend in Internet usage could mirror the mobile phone boom seen in Africa and Asia during the early 2000s. If that is the case, Africans could add as much as $300 billion to the continent's economic growth by 2025, according to a 2013 study by McKinsey Global Institute.