Connectivity in the Least Developed Countries: Status report 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how poorly prepared Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are for a digital world. Uneven connectivity within the group has meant that many people and businesses in LDCs could not avail themselves of high-speed networks for remote learning, access to e-government services and online shopping.
This report provides an update of digital connectivity developments in LDCs since the 2018 publication ICTs, LDCs and the SDGs: Achieving universal and affordable Internet in the Least Developed Countries (ITU and UN-OHRLLS, 2018). This publication gauges progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 9.c, aimed specifically at digital connectivity in the LDCs.
The target calls on States to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in Least Developed Countries”. While 2020 was the deadline, only two LDCs, Bangladesh and Bhutan, accomplished the universality and affordability aspects of the target. Some others are on track to reach it before the end of the decade. However, more than two dozen LDCs have not met and are not close to meeting either target. At the same time, while Internet coverage and pricing are gradually improving for some LDCs, Internet use is not keeping pace. There is a growing number of people in the LDCs theoretically able to access the Internet but not using it. While this is partly related to the cost of Internet-enabled devices, the larger cause is a lack of awareness and digital skills.
In 2020, the 46 LDCs had a combined population of 1.06 billion people and are highly vulnerable, with low levels of human development. And yet, geography, population size and income vary within the group, and these different conditions affect digital development.
National data infrastructure is an essential component for a digital economy, as it comprises the facilities for transporting, exchanging and storing data. There are significant gaps in national transmission networks, Internet exchange points (IXPs) and data centres. Coverage and density of national transmission networks are lagging in the LDCs. This has ramifications for Internet access and the quality of service. IXPs play a major role in lowering the cost of Internet access as well as reducing data exchange delay, yet 19 LDCs lack them. Furthermore, in those LDCs with IXPs, many of the facilities are not having the impact they should. Data centres, facilities to store data, are in short supply in the LDCs. There are less than 100 in the group, of which over a quarter are in Bangladesh. Eighteen LDCs do not have Internet-connected data centres.
Quarantine measures during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in people around the world turning to online shopping. However, this was not possible for many in the LDCs, due to a lack of online shops, as well as demand-side constraints, such as awareness, distrust and payment methods. An encouraging initiative is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) diagnostics and concrete recommendations for enhancing e-commerce in many LDCs.
The private sector is essential for boosting digital connectivity in the LDCs. Telecommunications in the LDCs are mainly operated by private companies, a reverse of the situation three decades go. Yet most policy reports make scarce mention of the companies building the connectivity infrastructure in LDCs. Companies operating in the LDCs are identified, and implications of their typology (such as publicly listed, private unlisted and full government ownership) for network deployment and transparency are discussed.
Note that some of the statistical information in the report draws on demand side surveys. The surveys are generally not conducted annually, so the latest available from 2016 to 2020 is used. As the surveys are from different sources that do not always use the same methodologies (such as different age groups), they are not strictly comparable. The surveys cover over 90 per cent of the population living in LDCs.