Less Than Half the Earth's Population Has Internet Access

The Internet continues to grow at a rapid clip, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of extending access, especially in poor and developing countries, according to the first Global Internet Report from the Internet Society, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. and Geneva, Switzerland.

The number of people with access to the Internet is expected to reach 3 billion by the beginning of 2015, the report predicts. That’s up from one billion in 2005, and undoubtedly a big number -- but still just 41% of the earth’s total projected population of 7.3 billion people (per a U.N. forecast) in 2015. As one might expect, Internet access is higher in regions with more advanced economies including North America, Europe, and Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, and Australia, and lower in Africa, the Middle East, India, and parts of Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa, where Internet penetration is lowest, 137 million people had access in 2012, or just 15% of a total population of 911 million that year.

That’s not to say there aren’t lots of people using the Internet in developing countries: in fact, the number of users in developing countries passed the number of users in developed countries back in 2008, and in 2012 the same happened with mobile broadband subscriptions, which totaled 1.93 billion worldwide in December 2013 and are projected to reach 5.3 billion by 2018, with emerging Asia accounting for the largest share.

As more people come online in places like sub-Saharan Africa, the Internet Society notes, they will likely leapfrog the developed world by moving straight to primarily mobile Internet usage, due to the lack of infrastructure to support fixed access. Thus the Internet Society predicts there will be 703 million 3G and 4G mobile broadband subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa by 2018, up from just 59 million in 2012 (although in 2018, as in 2012, many of these will belong to individuals with multiple subscriptions).

Overall global Internet traffic will quadruple between 2013 and 2018, according to the Internet Society. Per separate figures from Cisco, the proportion coming from online video will increase from 33% in 2012 to 56% in 2017, while over the same period the proportion coming from Web, email and data applications will fall from 23% to 18% and the proportion from file sharing from 29% to 14%. In the U.S., Netflix alone currently accounts for 28% of peak Internet traffic, while YouTube accounts for another 16.8%.

Although regional statistics vary, one thing’s for sure: more and more people around the world are going to come online over the next decade. Fiber-optic trunk lines are expanding fast in the developed world as well as some developing countries like China (which accounted for 40% of global demand for fiber optic cable in 2010) and recently the reigning Internet titans, Google and Facebook, both revealed plans to expand Internet access to underserved areas using satellites and long-endurance solar-powered drones.

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