Global Broadband Usage Grew by 38% in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined, Here’s Why

David Afolayan
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The 2020 edition of the Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has shown that the rollout of communications infrastructure across the globe is slowing.

It is not clear whether the rollout was stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, or whether there are other factors at play, especially as infrastructure deployment was already showing signs of slowing in 2019.

Between 2015 and 2020, 4G network coverage increased two-fold globally. This has brought the global population which is covered by the 4G network to almost 85% in 2020. At the moment, 90% of the world’s population has access to a mobile broadband network, less than half a percentage point higher than a year ago.

Broadband Usage Grew by  38% Across the Globe in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined. Here is Why

Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS- Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan etc.) are the regions facing the biggest gap. 23% of the African population and 11% of the CIS have no access to a mobile broadband network.

In 2020, Africa achieved 21% in 4G rollout while growth was negligible in all the other regions. In total, 44% of Africans have access to 4G network, 33% to 3G network and 11% to the 2G.

It also indicated that people living in rural areas faced greater challenges connecting to the internet during the lockdown than people in urban areas, especially in developing economies.

The urban-rural gap

Globally, about 72% of households in urban areas had access to the
Internet. In Africa, only 28% of households in urban areas had access to the Internet at home, but that was still 4.5 times as high as the percentage in rural areas, which stood at 6.3%.

In the other regions of the world, household Internet access in urban areas stood between 70% and 88% while access in rural areas ranged between 37% and 78%.

Broadband Usage Grew by  38% Across the Globe in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined. Here is Why

A similar picture emerges for households with a computer, but since computers are no longer the main gateway to the Internet, across the board the percentage of households with a computer is smaller than the percentage of households with Internet access.

Demography of users

The report indicates that the total population of young people (between 15 and 24) using the internet grew to 69% -from about 50% in 2019. This still implies that about 369 million young people and 3.7 billion people in total are offline.

This demography is not equitably represented across regions though. Asia and the Pacific are the regions that have the most impressive youth/overall ratio, according to the ITU data. In developed countries, virtually all young persons were using the Internet. Africa has the least impressive ratio.

Broadband Usage Grew by  38% Across the Globe in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined. Here is Why

The report estimated that 55% of the global male population is connected to the internet. The estimated sum of the female population is 48%. That translates into a gender parity score of 0.87, where the target is total parity, meaning a value of 1.

Since 2013, the gender parity score has decreased slightly, although not as severe as had been reported in 2019, owing to the availability of new
data for a range of countries.

Declining mobile subscriptions

The total number of mobile/telephone subscriptions declined for the first time in history in 2020. In the middle of 2020, there were an estimated 105 mobile-cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, down from 108 in 2019.

Broadband Usage Grew by  38% Across the Globe in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined. Here is Why

It is unclear if this is because of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or other socio-economic forces. This decline was driven by trends in Africa, South America, Asia and CIS countries, where the number of subscriptions went down from 103 in 2019 to 99 in the middle of 2020.

European and North American countries experienced a steady upward trend still in 2020.

Bandwidth Use Went up Astronomically

As networks around the world were put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic, increased Internet traffic caused a temporary drop in speed in many countries.

However, international bandwidth usage is estimated to have grown globally by 38%, exceeding the growth rate of the previous year by 6%.

Broadband Usage Grew by  38% Across the Globe in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined. Here is Why

Asia and the Pacific have the highest international bandwidth use, with over 300 Terabit per second (Tbit/s), followed by Europe with over 150 Tbit/s and the Americas with over 140 Tbit/s.

Interestingly, the growth of international bandwidth usage in developing countries outstripped growth in developed countries.

Barriers to broadband uptake

Low ICT skills remain a barrier to meaningful participation in a digital society. Because self-reporting of individuals’ ICT skills may be subjective, ICT skills are measured based on whether an individual has recently performed a particular activity that requires a certain level of skill.

The 2020 report shows that only 15% of the countries have up to 10% of its citizens writing a computer programme in 2020. About 40% have over 40% of citizens that sent an email and over 70% have 40% of its citizens send a document or file using the internet.

Broadband Usage Grew by  38% Across the Globe in 2020 but Internet Subscriptions Declined. Here is Why

Overall, it is evident that countries with large populations and low ICT skills have the smallest population of internet users.

Another critical factor is the cost of data. In 2018, the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development set as a target for 2025 that entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing
countries, corresponding to less than 2% of monthly income.

The average cost of a mobile-data basket of 1.5 GB in developing countries was substantially above this target.


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