1/3 of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet according to the latest study published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The ITU is a United Nations development agency specializing in information and communication technologies based in Geneva.

According to the ITU, 2.7 billion people (so 1/3 of the world population) would not be connected to the Internet in 2022, compared to 3 billion in 2021. On the other hand, 5.3 billion people in the world have access to the Internet today.

Beyond these figures, it is the slowdown in the growth of Internet users that is puzzling the ITU. The number of new people who connect to the Internet is increasing, but the growth is much slower than in the recent past.

Described as “encouraging” by the U.N. agency, this slower growth suggests that “without increased investment in infrastructure and a renewed push to foster digital skills, the chances of connecting everyone by 2030 look increasingly slim,” the ITU explains.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a big boost in connectivity, but we need to build on this momentum to ensure that everyone, everywhere can benefit from digital technologies and services,” said Houlin Zhao, the ITU secretary general. “This can only be done by investing more in digital networks and technologies, implementing best practice regulation and continuing to focus on skills development as we enter a post-pandemic era,” he assures.

Is universal connectivity by 2030 impossible?

While the UN had set 2030 as a milestone year for achieving universal connectivity, this now seems to be unlikely according to the ITU, which explains that it has two major challenges to overcome in order to achieve their goal:

First, it will be increasingly difficult to achieve universal connectivity as we reach closer to 100%.. Most of the relatively easily connected communities now have access to technologies such as mobile broadband, which is driving rapid and widespread adoption of digital services. Those who are still not connected live mostly in remote and hard-to-reach areas, says the ITU.

Second, the transition from basic to meaningful connectivity – whereby people not only have easy access to the internet but are able to use it regularly and effectively to improve their lives – is complex. Often, these challenges are overlooked or underestimated. Some of the obstacles the ITU cites include slow internet speeds, limited affordability of hardware and subscriptions, insufficient digital awareness and skills, language barriers and illiteracy, as well as issues such as gender discrimination or lack of reliable power sources. All of these issues must be addressed if everyone is to have equitable access to online resources, the UN body said.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, said: “While the increase in the number of people using the Internet worldwide is positive, we should not assume that the robust growth seen in recent years will continue unabated. The people who are not yet using the Internet will be the hardest to get online. They live in remote areas, often belong to disadvantaged groups and, in some cases, are unfamiliar with what the internet can offer. That’s why our goal must be not only universal connectivity, but useful universal connectivity,” she said.

ITU defines “useful connectivity” as a level of connectivity that enables users to have a safe, satisfying, rewarding and productive online experience at an affordable cost.

Glaring regional disparities

Globally, the number of Internet users has increased by 7% and the Internet penetration rate – the share of individuals using the Internet – has increased by 6% between 2021 and 2022. However, as the ITU explains, the growth is unevenly distributed among the different regions of the world.

Regions with low Internet penetration have seen the fastest growth over the past year – following a typical diffusion pattern of new and emerging technologies.

Africa, the least connected of the world’s six regions, recorded a 13% year-over-year growth in Internet penetration. Today, 40% of the African population is online. The Arab States have shown robust growth, with the Internet now reaching 70% of the population.

In Asia and the Pacific, Internet penetration increased from 61% in 2021 to 64% in 2022, proportional to the region’s population.

The Americas and Eastern Europe have each seen 3% growth, with over 80% of the population online in these regions. Finally, Europe remains the most connected region in the world, with 89% of its population online.