Costa Rica sported the highest growth in technology use worldwide during the past five years. Other, once sluggish, technology markets such as Bahrain, Lebanon and Ghana have since followed. However, the gap between the most and least digitally connected nations is widening.

Last November, the Costa Rican telecommunications regulator, SUTEL, raised eyebrows when it hired a PR agency to handle a campaign that would convince customers to accept a new method of charging for internet connections. Even some lawmakers slammed SUTEL’s move, claiming that the regulator was spending taxpayers’ money to push the same taxpayers to accept higher internet connection fees. SUTEL wanted to start charging Ticos according to the amount of transferred data and scrap the fixed fee that they were paying for a certain connection speed.

This is not the first time internet service providers have peeved Costa Rica’s internet users. Back in summer 2014, civil society groups harangued the country’s three mobile carriers, Movistar, Claro and state-controlled Kolbi, for a joint agreement to change the charging system for internet usage, which was to lead to higher prices for end-users. 

It’s not a wonder then to see in a recent report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that Costa Rica has enjoyed the highest jump worldwide in the use of information technology between 2010 and 2015. It is followed by Bahrain, Lebanon, Ghana and Thailand.

But in spite of the progress, some of it spectacular, made by some of the countries outside the western hemisphere, the digital divide between rich and poorer countries has continued to widen during the past five years. 

The Rich and Connected 

The situation at the top and the bottom of the heap when it comes to the use of information technologies has remained unchanged for the past five years. In 2015, as in 2010, Korea led the world as the most advanced and well-connected nation. In contrast, Chad finished last, according to ITU data.
ITU ranks the countries using what they call the ICT Development Index (IDI), a composite index mixing a total of eleven indicators. The three areas canvassed by the ITU’s analysis are digital access, use and skills. As part of this exercise, ITU gathers and processes datasets such as mobile and computer penetration, percentage of individuals using the internet and digital literacy rate, among other things. 

Not unexpectedly, Europe continued to lead. Eight of the top ten most connected and technologically advanced countries in 2015 were from Europe. Asia completed the top ten thanks to Hong Kong, which ranked ninth, a jump of four positions compared to 2010. All of these markets are high-income economies.

A positive sign is the fact that all 167 countries canvassed by the ITU improved their scores on information technology use between 2010 and 2015. 

However, the gap between the highest and lowest has not changed and, even more worryingly, the divide between middle-ranking countries and the least connected countries has widened further. For example, rich Western Europe had in 2015 the highest score, 7.35 in ITU’s calculations. The former Soviet Union countries, the Americas and the Arab States all exceed in 2015 the global average of 5.03. But Africa had a dismal score of 2.53.

Most dynamic countries in increased use of information technology, 2010-2015
Rank 2015CountryRank growth (’10-’15)
57Costa Rica23
32United Arab Emirates17
41Saudi Arabia15
Source: ITU, 2016

Another sign of slow development in less developed places was the fact that in the past five years only four countries, three from the Arab region (Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) and Belarus, joined the upper league, namely those countries with a score over 7.

The Arab Divide 

The Arab world has seen the most erratic performance since 2010. On the one hand, the nations there most advanced technologically (Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) all oil-rich states, had high internet penetration and use rates in 2015. With Lebanon and Oman, they ranked among the most dynamic countries worldwide in terms of adoption of information technologies in the past five years.

However, the Arab world has slid into its own divide with some advancing fast and others lagging behind. After Lebanon, which ranks 56th worldwide, there is a gap of 36 positions until you find an Arab nation, and that’s Jordan in 92nd place.

In the places that experienced the most dramatic political changes in the past five years, mainly thanks to a vibrant online movement, the situation has not seen major improvement. Tunisia stayed on a shameful 93rd place. Egypt dropped two ranks to an embarrassing 100th rank.

What is the Recipe? 

But what is driving growing connections, improved skills and higher use of information technologies? First of all, ITU says, liberalized and competitive markets where innovation is encouraged and people have decent incomes to be able to use top-notch gadgets and pay for internet service.

But on top of that, policy matters enormously, ITU warns.

High internet speed at home and “widespread availability of affordable broadband” are major engines for increased internet usage. Progressive regulatory frameworks allowing for such levels of access have been crucial in enabling a number of countries to feature on higher positions in the ITU’s scoreboard.

Frazzled Costa Ricans have understood that and keep fighting measures that would limit their lives online. For their own good.

Photo: Victoria Porter