In part due to its value as a vehicle for societal progress, internet access is considered a human right by the United Nations General Assembly. In a global economy shaped by developments in the digital world, education without a digital component leaves populations at a severe and growing disadvantage in the market. Internet access and education go hand-and-hand, and their partnership is increasingly crucial to social and economic welfare.
Yet, according to the World Economic Forum, more than four billion people lack internet access—most of them in developing nations. Internet users in Chad, for example, account for less than 3% of the country’s population. Improving internet access in these areas would open up new avenues for both financial opportunity and social inclusion.
If internet access is not available to all students, but only to a select group, this can drive the engine of economic inequality. According to the World Economic Forum, internet penetration in a given market must achieve a minimum threshold of 20-25% to avoid becoming a source of socioeconomic division.
As the economy continues to go digital, students must be able to learn critical web- and computer-based skills in order to compete. Affordable and ubiquitous internet access ensures that low-income and rural students have a chance to participate meaningfully in the new economy.
Although 20-25% is the target number, every bit counts. Pointing to data from several studies, the World Economic Forum reports that just a 10% increase in broadband penetration can contribute up to 1.35% in GDP growth.
As the Pew Research Center has suggested, the relationship between internet access and education is broad and extends beyond traditional classroom subjects. Internet access can make knowledge available that improves everyday life. 46% of users get health information on the internet and 42% use it to get information about government services.
Internet access can grant people in isolated or rural areas the ability to participate more fully in community and society. According to Pew, 54% of people with internet access use it to read political news.
It’s no wonder, then, that the World Economic Forum has stated that increasing internet access and use aligns with many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including “those related to education, gender equality, jobs and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, and sustainable cities and communities.”
What’s Being Done
Developing nations are a focus of global efforts to increase internet access, in large part due to the power of the internet to improve education and bring people out of poverty. A study by McKinsey indicated that the internet could contribute $300 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2025. According to Wired Magazine, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is funding a research program to extend internet access in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, there’s also still work to be done at home. As Brookings reported, rural American schools are struggling to connect students to the internet. When they do get access, they pay far more for it than their urban and suburban counterparts. Rural Americans also have difficulty getting internet at home. ISPs are not highly motivated to enter rural markets due to high entry costs. Nonprofits and government programs, like the Connect America Fund, are left trying to fill the gap.
Internet access is crucial to the success of today’s students. Without adequate access, socioeconomic divides are likely to widen and fewer students will find pathways out of poverty. With massive potential economic and social gains at stake, expanding internet access is a goal that’s worth fighting for through investment in infrastructure and access expansion.