Global digital divide persists but is narrowing

Major differences remain in Internet access and usage around the world – the so called “digital divide”. Consumers in developed countries remain generally much better connected, particularly for broadband, than those in developing countries, but growth rates are much higher in the latter. This has broad economic implications, for instance on consumer spending habits and business opportunities, as well as social, political and cultural consequences.

Persistent digital divide

Despite significant progress, developing regions remain far behind developed regions in terms of access to and usage of broadband Internet:

  • The best-connected country in 2010 in terms of broadband enabled computers was South Korea, where 97.6% of households owned a broadband enabled computer, while Sweden was second place at 83.6%. This is thanks to low costs, good IT infrastructure and high consumer incomes;
  • In contrast, African countries tend to have the worst performance in this regard. For instance, only 0.9% of households in Cameroon owned a broadband enabled computer in 2010. These figures are partly related to the standard of IT infrastructure and its end-user cost, but also due to incomes: the Middle East and Africa had the lowest disposable income per capita of any region in 2010 at US$1,188;
  • In nominal terms, China has seen the largest increase in the number of broadband subscribers: they rose by 74.4 million between 2005 and 2010, an annual average growth of 24.5%. China has the world's largest number of Internet users, at 418.9 million in 2010;


    Future growth in the number of broadband users is expected to be concentrated in developing regions, given that penetration and usage rates are approaching maturity in more developed countries. For example, the number of broadband Internet subscribers is forecast to grow by an annual average of 46.6% between 2010 and 2020 in Nigeria, compared to 0.9% in Iceland.

    China will have the world's biggest number of broadband subscribers in 2020, at 226.7 million, while the total number of Internet users will be 945.5 million in developed countries by 2020, compared to 2.8 billion in emerging and developing countries. The ITU has targeted having broadband access for half the world's population by 2015, while Brazil is targeting broadband access in 68.0% of households by 2014, and the UK wants universal broadband access by 2015.

    In terms of business opportunities, the total global Internet retail market size is forecast to reach US$540.6 billion by 2015 in real terms (US$ fixed 2010 exchange rates). Of the major emerging economies, the quickest real average annual growth is expected to be in Nigeria (51.9% annually), China (23.2% annually) and Indonesia (22.0% annually), although these countries will continue to lag far behind North America and Western Europe in terms of spending per capita.