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Every year, the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development ‘State of Broadband’ report takes the pulse of the global broadband industry and explores progress in broadband connectivity. This year’s report finds mixed messages about the growth of ICTs and the global state of broadband. Although strong growth rates continue for mobile broadband and Facebook usage, and mobile cellular subscriptions exceeded 7 billion for the first time during 2015, growth in both mobile cellular subscriptions and Internet usage has slowed sharply.

The UN Broadband Commission’s 2011 targets have not been achieved by the target date of 2015 and seem unlikely to be achieved before 2020. Likewise, the milestone of four billion Internet users is unlikely to be surpassed before 2020. The growth in Facebook subscribers is now outpacing growth in the Internet.

Internet growth

  • By end 2015, some 3.2 billion people will be online, equating to over 43.4% of the total world population, and up from 2.9 billion a year earlier (almost 40.6% of the population).
  • In the developing world, Internet penetration will surpass 35.3% by the end of 2015; penetration will still be under 10% at 9.5% in the UN-designated Least Developed Countries, however.
  • Even though Internet penetration is approaching saturation in the developed world, with 82.2% of the population online, the global target of 60% set by the Broadband Commission in 2011, to be achieved by 2015, is unlikely to be achieved before 2021 at the earliest.
  • Internet user penetration in the developing world is unlikely to achieve the Broadband Commission target of 50% before 2020. By the end of 2015, there will still be 57% of the world’s population – or four billion people – still offline.
  • Household Internet access in developed countries is close to saturation, with more than 81.3% of households connected. The proportion of households in the developing world with Internet access has increased from 31.5% at the end of 2014 to over 34.1% a year later – still well short of the Broadband Commission target of 40% by 2015.
  • Household connectivity figures mask strong disparities – fewer than 7% of households in LDCs have access, while in sub-Saharan Africa only 1 in 9 households is connected. According to Point Topic, Asia has the largest total number of broadband-connected homes, with nearly as many in total as Europe and the Americas combined.
  • The gender gap in Internet users is proving stubbornly persistent, with an estimated 200 million more men online than women as recently as 2013; one major problem is that sex-disaggregated data are not yet widely reported by national governments and statistics agencies.

Mobile growth

  • The mobile industry is growing strongly, but unevenly. ITU forecasts that the milestone of seven billion mobile cellular subscriptions will be exceeded by end 2015, equivalent to a global penetration rate of 97 subscriptions per 100 people.
  • ITU also estimates that there will be a total of almost 3.5 billion mobile broadband subscriptions by end 2015. Industry analysts predict 6.5 billion mobile broadband (3G/4G/5G) subscriptions by 2019, making mobile broadband the fastest growing ICT service in history.
  • Asia-Pacific now accounts for half of all mobile broadband subscriptions, up from just under 45% at the end of 2014. In January 2015, China Mobile became the world’s largest mobile operator by number of subscribers.
  • The rapid expansion of Asia-Pacific is squeezing other world regions in terms of their mobile broadband market share – Europe and the Americas saw declining proportional shares of mobile broadband subscriptions from the end of 2014 to the end of 2015, despite absolute increases in subscription numbers.
  • Smartphones now dominate the mobile device market, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Ericsson forecasts that the number of smartphones in service could exceed ‘basic’ phones by 2016. While developed markets become saturated in terms of total mobile penetration, analysts still see plenty of room for growth, with only an estimated one third of all mobile subscriptions currently associated with a smartphone.
  • In hindsight, the year 2014 is likely to prove a tipping point as the year in which growth in ‘3G’ services began to slow, as growth in ‘4G’ services accelerated.

Continued in report.

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