How the COVID-19 Pandemic Reinforces the Need for Internet Inclusion

By Robert Pepper, Head of Global Connectivity Policy and Planning

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened demand for critical internet access and people not yet connected are being left further behind. The fifth edition of the Inclusive Internet Index, released today, depicts an internet that is more accessible and affordable than ever. Quality internet access is more essential to everyday living than ever before. 

People around the world reported increased use of the internet for more dimensions of their lives, signifying a “new normal” that will continue in the future. However, trust in the internet declined and digital skills diminished, leaving doubts about the ability to take full advantage of the benefits the internet has to offer. Because of the value of being connected online during the pandemic, the almost half of the world’s population not yet online are at risk of being further disadvantaged—exacerbating a growing digital divide.

The Inclusive Internet Index

The Inclusive Internet Index (3i) by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in collaboration with Facebook, benchmarks countries on the internet’s availability, affordability, relevance and the readiness of people to use it. Now in its fifth year, the Index covers 120 countries, representing 96% of the world’s population and 98% of global GDP. The Index is accompanied by the Value of the Internet Survey, which this year focused on the internet’s impact on personal well-being, a particularly pertinent topic during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Findings from the 2021 Index

Life moves online

Respondents to the Value of the Internet Survey said that essential elements of their life such as socialization, work, entertainment and education had shifted significantly online since the pandemic began. Nearly 70% of people around the world believed that their increased internet usage in all aspects of life signified a “new normal” that will continue indefinitely in the future. Only 3% said that no aspect of their lives had seen a dramatic shift online. Unable to meet in person, those under the most stringent lockdowns relied on the internet for nearly every conceivable activity, including forging human connections.

inclusive internet index graph

The availability paradox

Regions of the world without widespread access to quality internet have become the most dependent upon it. People in low-income and lower-middle-income countries relied on online education during the pandemic more than those in wealthier countries, and predicted that they will continue to use online channels for education even after the pandemic has subsided. Yet schoolchildren in low- and lower-middle-income countries lost nearly 16 weeks of schooling by October 2020 due to the pandemic and significantly lower internet access and adoption, compared with only six weeks of loss in high-income countries.

inclusive internet index chart

The usage gap

The majority of countries (77 out of 120) saw improvements in internet inclusion overall, in part because of increased availability. However, the gap in availability is closing at an unacceptably slow rate, and other challenges are moving to the forefront, such as how many people are actually using the internet when it is available. What was once a coverage gap primarily marked by insufficient network coverage has evolved in many places into a “usage gap” marked by people unable, unwilling or uninterested in using the internet.   

The Inclusive Internet Index reveals significant declines in readiness, a function of digital skills and people’s perceptions about trust and safety online, and in relevance, which measures the value people derive from the content available to them. During the pandemic, people relied on the internet for accurate news and information more than ever before. This suggests that the demand for relevant content has increased, outstripping the supply.

Our Path Forward

The results from this year’s Inclusive Internet Index underscores the importance of Facebook’s investments in connectivity around the world. Just recently, we announced two vital new subsea cables to connect Singapore, Indonesia and North America to increase overall transpacific capacity by 70 percent. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought newfound attention to the digital divide, it has also shed light on what the future of work, social interaction, education and healthcare may look like. We hope this sharpened focus on critical internet access will cause industry stakeholders, including policymakers and technology companies, to work together to close the connectivity gap and improve equal access to the internet for all.

For more, read the Inclusive Internet Index executive summary and watch the EIU present this year’s results in a virtual panel discussion among senior officials from the International Telecommunication Union, World Bank, GSMA, Millicom and the Vice Minister of ICT from Colombia. Watch more videos about the internet’s importance for digital inclusion, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Inclusive Internet Index is produced annually by The Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by Facebook.



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