The importance of broadband connectivity was brought into sharp focus with COVID-19. The pandemic accelerated the uptake of broadband and the adoption of digital services by individuals and businesses, the digitalization of governmental services and spread of e-commerce. Evidence suggests that much of this will be sustained post-pandemic with consequences for the design and quality of broadband networks.
In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the number of Internet users grew by over 11 per cent, the largest increase in a decade; in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) Internet use went up 15 per cent. According to the latest ITU data, Internet use grew to 66 per cent of the population in 2022, reaching 5.3 billion people, up from 54 per cent in 2019. A significant part of this growth was driven by the need to use quarantine related applications such as videoconferencing for work and education as well as online shopping, access to public services and remote health consultation. At the same time, the pandemic sharply magnified the consequences of the digital divide and today 2.7 billion people are without broadband and not able to access public services or learn from home.
Networks withstood the huge explosion in data traffic triggered by COVID-19. After a blip following the onset of the pandemic, average broadband speeds increased despite the giant jump in demand. Traffic patterns shifted with peak times reversing from night to day and uploads increasing due to more people working from home and the two-way nature of videoconferencing. Network traffic patterns observed during the pandemic are likely to persist as some of the changes induced will at least partly remain in place, mainly flexible work.
There is a mixed picture in regard to progress towards the Broadband Commission’s Advocacy Targets. The number of economies with a broadband plan has slightly decreased over the past year to 155, with plans having expired and not being renewed in some countries. Beyond having a broadband plan, what is in the plan is just as important. This includes concrete strategies for boosting broadband investment, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.
After years of improvement, affordability of broadband services worsened in 2021. This is largely due to a sharp drop in incomes as a result of COVID-19 rather than an increase in service charges, which continued to drop. Just 96 countries met the target for mobile broadband, down from 103 in 2020, while 64 countries met the target for fixed broadband, down two from 2020.
Measurement of digital skills and literacy continues to pose a challenge. Most digital skills indicators are based on self-assessment. However one study finds that digital skills among youth are much below their perception, highlighting that the productivity skills that young people need for their studies and future work remain poor.
The pandemic led to an increase in digital financial services: four in 10 people in developing economies (excluding China) made a digital payment for the first time after the start of the pandemic. The target has been reached on a global basis with 64 per cent of people aged 15 years and older making or receiving digital payments in 2021 up from 52 per cent in 2017.
The target for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) has become particularly relevant due to the pandemic. Many MSMEs, particularly in low- and middle-income nations, were caught off-guard following the introduction of quarantines. With no broadband Internet access, they were unable to pivot swiftly to online operations to sell products and services.
Gender equality in access to digital services is improving. According to the latest ITU estimates, 69 per cent of men were using the Internet in 2022 compared to 64 per cent of women. Some regions and income groups have reached gender parity in Internet use, including developed countries and the Americas, while small island developing States (SIDS) and Europe have almost achieved it. The substantial gender gap in mobile Internet use in LMICs had been improving, driven primarily by South Asia where it decreased significantly; this progress has stalled however—and in some countries the mobile Internet gender gap has even increased.
Greater use of digital technologies during COVID-19 led to an increase in electricity use. Electricity use increased in 2020 among ICT companies, despite a 0.9 per cent global drop in electricity generation, the first decline since 2009. GHG emissions in the ICT sector also grew but at a slower rate than previous years implying that grids are increasing their share of renewable energy. Further widespread use of digital technologies had an enabling effect for users through the avoidance of emissions. Broadband enables emission reductions across different sectors. GSMA has estimated that the use of mobile technology enabled a reduction of GHG emissions of around 2 135 million tonnes in 2018.
To transition smoothly to a more connected post-pandemic world, two things need to occur. First is a conducive regulatory environment for broadband services to attract the vast investment needed to support a more digital world. Second are strategies and policies to enable broadband adoption and accelerate digital inclusion. The pandemic brought into sharp focus the digital divide with many unable to work from home or take part in remote education due to a lack of adequate skills, Internet access, appropriate devices and the means to pay for it