4.2 Billion People in the World Still Don't Have Internet — Here's Why That Matters

AP

The Internet has changed the way we live, find love, shop, do business, communicate, get fit, stay healthy and just about everything else. But that "we" doesn't include billions of people who have no access to smartphones, social networks, health databases or digital maps.

A new United Nations report from the Broadband Commission for Digital Development shows that of the world's 7 billion people, 4.2 billion are still without regular Internet access.

The U.N.'s expectations of where we should be right now are falling short. The Broadband Commission's original goal for the end of 2015 was to get 60% of the world online. Instead, they believe we'll be at 43.4% by the end of the year. That's 2.8% in growth since 2014, with that growth getting slower. Now they believe the world won't hit that 60% mark until 2021 at the very earliest.

"Although strong growth rates continue for mobile broadband and Facebook usage, and mobile cellular subscriptions exceeded 7 billion for the first time during 2015, growth in global mobile cellular subscriptions and growth in Internet usage have slowed sharply," the report concludes. "We have reached a transition point in the growth of the Internet."

Smartphones are more than Facebook and Snapchat. In the developing world, an Internet-connected smartphone is a multifaceted tool that can take the place of classrooms, medical technology and sensors.

Internet-connected phones can detect malaria non-invasively, be used as electrocardiogram or fetal care monitors in places like Uganda. They can be a textbook, an attendance ledger, a TV screen, a calculator or whatever a teacher needs to educate a class where traditional schooling isn't convenient.

The Internet gives marginalized people political power. During every people's revolution of the past decade — Egypt, Hong Kong, Ukraine — cell phones and social media have played a vital role in organizing and distributing information to protestors and activists.

Source: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Source: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

But most importantly, the spread of the mobile Internet allows for economic growth. Mobile payments and cellphone-based commerce can inject vital fuel into local economies, and have helped entrepreneurs in developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa start connected businesses.

There are still barriers slowing the growth of the Internet. The most obvious are economic and governmental. Having an Internet-enabled society requires broadband infrastructure, money, towers, a national plan — for this, the U.N. is laying out clear policy recommendations for developing countries. But there are far more obvious, universal barriers.

A simple one is language. The world speaks roughly 7,100 languages, and the U.N. report estimates that only 5% of them are represented on the Internet as a whole (Facebook is available in just under a hundred). English alone accounts for over half of all websites.  

As Facebook's Director of Localization Iris Orriss writes in Innovations, having an app or program not be available in your language or alphabet can prevent you from finding vital information, or even just friends to connect with.

Source: United Nations
Source: United Nations

"Among the 4.2 billion people who are not online, many people may be unaware of the Internet's potential or cannot use it, because there is little or no useful content in their native language," the U.N. study says.

And then there's gender. In many developing countries, the U.N. reports, women are 21% less likely to own a smartphone than men, a number that jumps to nearly 50% in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

"If women and girls are unable to enjoy the same access to broadband and [the Internet], including the availability of relevant content, they will find themselves at a serious disadvantage in becoming fully literate, accessing skilled jobs, learning about and exercising their rights, and participating as citizens in public and policy-making processes," the study says.

Elimination of these barriers could spark a rapid expansion, because once the Internet lands, it lands hard. According to the report, countries where the Internet and mobile phones have taken hold — places like China, India and Brazil — market penetration has skyrocketed in just a few years. Others are left out entirely, creating a stark contrast between vividly networked countries and those still left out of the fruits of the Information Era.