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Survey: 54 percent in developing world use Internet

Pew study points to major strides in shrinking the global 'digital divide'

For the first time, more than half of those living in emerging and developing nations have at least occasional Internet access on a computer or smartphone — a milestone that experts say suggests major strides in chipping away at global digital inequality.

According to data from the Pew Research Center's annual survey on global Internet usage released Monday, a median of 54 percent of adults in emerging and developing economies identified themselves as “Internet users” in 2015. That figure, up from 45 percent two years ago, includes 37 percent of respondents in the developing world who reported owning a smartphone — a sharp rise from just 21 percent in 2013.

Pew Research Center

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.

Pew Research Center

How to expedite that process, however, remains a hotly debated question. One strategy for expanding access in poor countries favored by tech companies is to offer so-called “zero rating” services, whereby companies like Facebook compensate service providers to offer everyone free access to a limited, predetermined package of services — expanding those companies' user base while simultaneously bringing millions of unconnected individuals online for the first time.

Zero rating has met fierce opposition, however, with advocates of net neutrality — the principle of a free and open Internet — arguing that allowing a tech company to manipulate who can access which online services for free amounts to differential pricing that is inimical to both digital equality and innovation. In a high-profile ruling earlier this month, India’s telecoms regulator banned all zero rating services, including Facebook’s Free Basics program, from the country. Indians deserve cheaper access to the Internet, net neutrality advocates say, but zero rating is not the answer.

Digital inequality is a domestic phenomenon, too. Besides national wealth, youth, education and personal income are also linked to Internet usage. For example, in many emerging countries, those aged 18-34 are more than twice as likely to use the Internet than those over the age of 35. In some, men are far more likely than women to either own a smartphone or use the Internet.

Those gaps tend to be minimal in developed countries where Internet usage is nearly universal. But recent evidences suggests there is progress to be made even in the richest nations. According to one study released earlier this month, low-income American families use the Internet nearly as often as middle-income ones, but have more barriers to access; for instance, many who can only afford Internet access on their mobile phones either reach their monthly data limits or miss payments, cutting off access temporarily.

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