World's Internet population to surpass 2B mark

While wired Internet penetration continues to grow worldwide, developing nations still experience limited access and high-speed Web access remains expensive in low-income developing countries, finds new study.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

Having doubled over the past five years, the global Internet population is now set to pass the 2 billion-mark this year, according to the latest report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The number of people with access to the Web at home is also projected to increase from 1.4 billion in 2009 to almost 1.6 billion in 2010.

Released Tuesday, the study revealed that out of 226 million new Internet users this year, 162 million will come from developing countries. In fact, by end-2010, 71 percent of the population in developed countries will be online compared to 21 percent in developing countries.

While 65 percent of people in developed countries have access to the Internet at home, only 13.5 percent in developing countries enjoy the same home access as Web connectivity in schools, at work and public locations remains critical in these markets.

In comparison, 65 percent of Europeans are on the Internet, compared to only 9.6 percent of Africans.

ITU said with the rapidly increasing high-bandwidth content and applications on the Internet, there is growing demand for higher-speed broadband connections. The industry body pointed to broadband as a catalyst for growth.

"Broadband is the next tipping point, the next truly transformational technology," ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré said in the report. "It can generate jobs, drive growth and productivity, and underpin long-term economic competitiveness. It is also the most powerful tool that we have at our disposal in our race to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the deadline for which is now just five years away."

The Millennium goals refer to the eight international targets that all United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by 2015, including removing extreme poverty, lowering child mortality rates and battling disease epidemics including AIDS.

Internet subscriptions climbing

The study also showed strong growth in fixed broadband subscriptions with the global penetration rate to hit 8 percent by end-2010. Adoption, however, remains low in developing countries where the subscription level clocks at 4.4 per 100 people compared to 24.6 in developed countries.

While high-speed Internet is still out of reach for many in low-income countries, mobile telephony is becoming ubiquitous with access to mobile networks now available to over 90 percent of the global population.

The ITU study indicates that among the estimated 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions by the end of 2010, 3.8 billion will be in the developing world.

Director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau, Sami Al Basheer, said: "Mobile phone penetration in developing countries now stands at 68 percent, higher than any other technology before. These countries...will be able to draw even greater benefits from broadband once adequate and affordable access is available."

In developed countries, growth in mobile subscriptions has slowed considerably over the past five years, with year-on-year growth from 2009 to 2010 expected to be only 1.6 percent. In those countries, the mobile market is reaching saturation levels with an average 116 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

At the same time, subscriptions of IMT-2000/3G services will increase from 72 million in 2005 to 940 million in 2010. As many as 143 countries now offer such services commercially, up from 95 countries in 2007.

Over the past year, mobile broadband has experienced steep growth, especially in Europe and the United States. Some countries have also started to offer commercial services at even higher broadband speeds, moving to next-generation wireless platforms, according to ITU.

The trend from voice to data applications is reflected in the growing number of SMS or text messages sent, which tripled over the past three years and expected to reach a staggering 6.1 trillion in 2010. This means that close to 200,000 text messages are sent every second.

Internet expensive in developing countries

Overall, the price of ICT services is falling but high-speed Internet access remains prohibitively expensive, especially in low-income developing countries.

In 2009, an entry-level wired broadband connection cost on average 190 PPP$ (purchasing power parity in USD) per month in developing countries, compared to only 28 PPP$ in developed countries.

Mobile cellular services are more affordable, with an average monthly cost of 15 PPP$ in developing countries compared to around 18 PPP$ in developed countries.

The relative price for ICT services, particularly broadband connection, is highest in Africa, which has the lowest income levels among all regions. It lags behind with regard to broadband access.

Although subscriptions are increasing, Africa's penetration rate of less than 1 percent for fixed broadband illustrates the huge challenges that persist to increase access to high-speed, high-capacity Internet.

ITU released the figures in conjunction with World Statistics Day.

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