The Internet has been available in the developing world almost as long as it’s been here in the U.S. Internet cafes were popping up in Cameroon in the mid 1990s before the local Peace Corps volunteers even knew how to use them. Penetration rates, however, lag predictably behind the richer countries in the north. But the lack of telecommunications infrastructure is something of a blessing in disguise: developing nations have the potential to leapfrog technologies. Cell phones and VOIP prove easier than installing costly land lines, and there’s no need for telephone poles and copper cable if governments can create WiFi and WiMAX zones around burgeoning urban areas.
Wired Magazine recently featured a map with average prices for one hour of online access in Internet cafes around the world. Statastic used the average hourly price as a percentage of daily wages to provide a glimpse into the state of Internet access in a selection of low to middle income countries.
The chart below begs several questions. Could lowering the cost of public Internet access lead to higher usage rates? What is the demographic profile of the average Internet user in the developing world? Should multi-lateral donors subsidize the cost of public Internet access?
Among this small sample, D.R. Congo, Nigeria and Kenya are the three most expensive places for locals to access the Internet, relative to income. They also have some of the lowest usage rates. But these countries have several other characteristics in common: low literacy, high rates of corruption, and a high level of inequality. These countries may simply have a limited number of Internet cafes that cater to tourists, corrupt officials and the wealthy locals who are lucky enough to have an education and a job.
Brazil’s usage rates are surprisingly high. Perhaps Brazil’s high inequality can help explain how 14% of Brazilians have regular access to the Internet despite the fact that one hour in an Internet café costs nearly one sixth of average daily wages. Just who are those fortunate 14%?