The cost of Internet services has inched downward across the globe in 2022, according to Facts and Figures, the annual worldwide overview on the state of digital connectivity from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The Internet has become more affordable in all regions of the world and among all income groups, based on the assessment from ITU, the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Cost, however, remains a major obstacle to Internet access, especially in low-income economies. The current global economic situation – with high inflation, rising interest rates, and deep uncertainty – could add to the challenge of extending Internet reach in lower-income areas.

“The Internet may be more affordable overall, but for billions of people around the world, it is just as out of reach as ever,” says ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao. “We need to keep Internet affordability moving in the right direction even as the global downturn cuts deeper into the economic prospects of many countries.”

ITU’s Facts and Figures series features estimates for key connectivity indicators for the world, regions, and selected country groups. The assessment provides context on the evolving digital divide while also reviewing progress towards closing it.

Earlier this year, ITU reported that 2,7-billion people – roughly one-third of the global population – remain unconnected to the Internet. The figure was an improvement from 2021 but revealed a levelling off from the strong connectivity gains made during the onset and height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Access to the Internet is increasing, but not as quickly and evenly across the world as it needs to,” says Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau and ITU secretary-general-elect. “Too many people still live in digital darkness. Our global challenge is to commit the resources that would allow everyone to benefit in a meaningful way from being connected.”

According to Facts and Figures 2022, the global median price of mobile-broadband services dropped from 1,9% to 1,5% of average gross national income (GNI) per capita. Mobile broadband allows users to access the Internet from a smartphone. The affordability of this service has become a benchmark for global Internet use, since it provides relatively inexpensive access compared to fixed Internet service.

Still, for the average consumer in most low-income economies, the cost of fixed or mobile broadband services remains too high.

A basic mobile data plan in these countries was found to cost on average 9 per cent of average income. This represents a slight decrease from 2021, but it remains many times greater than the cost of similar services in higher-income countries. The result is that those who can least afford broadband service – and that could benefit the most from it – are paying the highest amounts in relative terms.

Earlier this year, ITU and the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology announced ambitious targets for universal and meaningful digital connectivity to be achieved by 2030. Affordability, defined as the availability of broadband access at a price that is less than 2 per cent of monthly GNI per capita, was identified as a priority to ensure that everyone can benefit fully from connectivity.

Among the economies for which data are available for both 2021 and 2022, more countries met the 2% affordability target in 2022 across the different types of services.

A gender gap within the digital divide

Although women account for close to half the world’s population, 259-million fewer women have access to the Internet than men. Only 63% of women are using the Internet in 2022 compared to 69% of men, according to Facts and Figures 2022. The gender gap is even more concerning in lower-income nations in which 21% of women are online compared to 32% of men – a figure that has not improved since 2019.

Overall, the world has moved closer toward gender parity over the last three years. Gender parity is defined as when the female percentage of Internet users divided by the male percentage stands between 0.98 and 1.02. The gender parity score improved from 0.90 in 2019 to 0.92 in 2022.

Generally, regions with the highest Internet use also have the highest gender parity scores. Conversely, many of the world’s least developed and vulnerable economies feature low Internet use, a low gender parity score, and limited progress toward gender parity over the last three years.

Mobile phone ownership continues to rise

For the first time, ITU’s Facts and Figures features global and regional estimates for mobile phone ownership, revealing that almost three-quarters of the global population aged 10 and over own a mobile phone in 2022. Mobile phones are the most common gateway to Internet use, with the percentage of ownership serving as an indicator of Internet availability and access.

Ownership of mobile phones, however, remains higher than Internet use, especially in lower-income countries. Reliance on mobile-cellular service could be a further indication of the impact of costs, with overall prices for cellular-only service being less expensive than broadband.

Young Internet users cross a digital threshold

According to Facts and Figures 2022, youth aged 15-24 years are the driving force of connectivity, with 75% of young people worldwide now able to use the Internet, up from 72% in 2021. Use among the rest of the population is estimated at 65%.

Universality, defined as more than 95 per cent Internet use, has already been reached among the youth 15-24 age group in high- and upper-middle-income economies. Low-income economies feature the biggest generation gap, with 39% of young people using the Internet, compared to only 23% of the rest of the population.

Among other findings in Facts and Figures 2022, mobile-broadband subscriptions continue to grow fast and are approaching mobile-cellular subscription rates, which are plateauing. Fixed broadband subscriptions also continue to grow steadily, but low digital skills remain an obstacle that keeps individuals from fully realizing the benefits of being online, as well as limiting their ability to avoid its dangers.