By Leo Kelion
The UK has moved up the UN’s net-connectivity table, leapfrogging Hong Kong and Japan to take eighth place.
South Korea topped the list for the third year in a row. Niger and the Central African Republic came in last.
Officials forecast that almost 40% of the world’s population would be online by the end of the year.
But they warned that the relative high cost of net access in developing countries was restricting uptake and causing a “digital divide”.
They said 90% of the globe’s 1.1 billion households not yet connected to the net were in the developing world, and highlighted a group of 39 countries – most of which are in Africa – they said were not making enough progress to roll out information and communications technologies (ICT).
As a result, they warned that at current growth rates it was unlikely that the UN Broadband Commission’s 2015 targets for global internet use would be achieved.
The ICT Development Index is based on 11 indicators measuring internet access, use and skills.
It is compiled on an annual basis by the International Telecommunication Union – a United Nations agency dedicated to expanding connectivity.
Its 2012 report noted that a high level of competition had helped the UK rise up its scoreboard, with the country enjoying some of the world’s cheapest fixed and mobile broadband rates, based on a comparison of subscription costs versus income.
It noted that 80% of all UK households had had an internet connection at the end of last year – more than double the global rate.
Across the world it said 250 million people had joined the net in 2012 and it forecast a total of 2.7 billion people would be using it by the end of this year.
However, it added, that would still leave 4.4 billion people offline.
Part of the problem, the ITU said, was the issue of affordability.
Buying fixed-broadband cost on average 30% of gross national income per capita in developing countries, it said. In other words, nearly a third of the average wage.
In half of all African countries the level was even higher with fixed-broadband costing more than 40% of the average wage.
It acknowledged that mobile phone data was usually more affordable, but said there were exceptions – in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sao Tome and Principe buying 500MB of data for use on a handset cost more than 100% of the average monthly wage.
By contrast, Malaysia was singled out for praise for running a smartphone money-back initiative for the under-30s and investing heavily in getting schools online.
“Our most pressing challenge is to identify ways to enable those countries which are still struggling to connect their populations to deploy the networks and services which will lift them out of poverty,” said Hamadoun Toure, the ITU’s secretary general.
The UN’s official target is that the cost of accessing the net falls below 5% of a country’s average monthly wage.
To help achieve that goal a group of private and public sector organisations has launched a coalition to coincide with the ITU’s report.
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) is the brainchild of the World Wide Web Foundation, and aims to pressure countries to change the ways they allocate spectrum and promote infrastructure-sharing efforts in order to force prices down.
Google, Facebook, Intel, Yahoo, Microsoft, the US State Department and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women are among its sponsors.
“The reason for the alliance is simple – the majority of the world’s people are still not online, usually because they can’t afford to be,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Foundation.
“In Mozambique, for example, a recent study showed that using just one gigabyte of data can cost well over two months’ wages for the average citizen.
“The result of high prices is a widening digital divide that slows progress in vital areas such as health, education and science.
“The real bottleneck now is anti-competitive policies that keep prices unaffordable. The alliance is about removing that barrier and helping as many as possible get online at reasonable cost.”