In today’s world you might think that the last people to be reached by broadband service would be those in remote or rural locations, particularly given the fact that many of us in North American urban centres likely consider broadband access and affordability to an inexorable and ubiquitous part of our very existence. In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve long considered city life and broadband access to exist hand-in-hand…but not so.
A new study conducted on behalf of the Wireless Broadband Alliance has found that the digital divide has really nothing to do with urban or rural living, and discovered that shockingly 57 percent of the world’s urban population remains unconnected, lacking either fixed or wireless broadband service.
To put in another way, in a classic tale of haves and have-nots, being part of the so-called unconnected billions—and by the study’s own numbers, it’s about 2.2 billion people unconnected in cities alone—has little to do with where you live within a given country, and everything to do with how much money you have while living there.
According to the findings of the study, conducted by research group Maravedis, there not only exists a shockingly high number of unconnected people within city centres, but within each of those individual cities there exists a wide disparity of broadband access. This means that a sizeable population percentage inside many large cities is excluded from the digital age, “either because they cannot afford the service or because the service is simply not available in their neighbourhood.”
Now perhaps that’s not entirely shocking, given that many of the larger cities in the developing world still lack the resources and infrastructure to provide widespread broadband service, but again surprisingly the study found that even in large, developed cities, like New York and Shanghai, more than a quarter of the population were still without broadband service.
Granted the number of unconnected in urban centres varied by region and country, as one might expect, as cities in the 2/3s world tended to have a higher percentage of those without broadband access than did cities in Europe or North America. To that end, it makes sense then that the study found that urban centres across the Middle East, followed by Asia, topped the list of the highest percentage of the popular without Internet access. But again, those are people living in large, urban centres, the places one might think Internet infrastructure, coverage, and availability would be at their highest.
I mean, consider the moonshot Internet connection campaigns launched by Google and Facebook in recent years, where balloons and drones are being deployed to beam Internet access down to places where Internet infrastructure is weakest. Now when we think of those kinds of far-off, unconnected places we undoubtedly assume we’re talking about rural life around the world, but not so, meaning that perhaps Google and Facebook might want to focus on connecting cities first, and expand from there.
All that to say, where a person lives, whether in the city or in the country, seems to have less to do with the available access to broadband service than does wealth and affluence, and that means that some of those unconnected billions may be our friends and neighbours, not just some faceless population of people on the other side of the world. What it also means is that cities, not telcos or ISPs, need to start taking responsibility for delivering broadband infrastructure, considering it a public utility for everyone rather than a luxury for the rich.