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15 Sep, 2011

Facebook or Fakebook? ITU Report Urges “Caution” On User Numbers

A landmark report issued by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) today says that Facebook’s claims of having millions of users “should be treated with caution” because little is known about how those statistics are compiled or what they actually represent.

The challenge to Facebook’s statistical credibility is contained in the 2011 edition of Measuring the Information Society, the annual state of the industry report issued by the ITU. An invaluable resource for the travel & tourism industry, the report features a roundup of information society developments worldwide, monitors the affordability of ICT services, takes an in-depth look at broadband development and presents new data on subscriptions, speed and bandwidth.

The 174-page report also shows that the Internet usage divide runs along gender, education, income and age lines, and there are significant differences between people living in rural and urban areas of developing countries. An analysis of Internet user statistics reveals some of the key challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed to bring more people online in developing countries.

It notes, “Social networking and user-created content has become one of the main online activities in which young people especially are actively engaging. Given that 47 per cent of the population in developing countries are under 25 years of age, there is an incredible potential in terms of increasing the number of Internet users.”

Although the report acknowledges the influence of Facebook as one of the world’s most popular social networking sites, especially among young users, a sidebar embedded in the report headlines the key issue unequivocally: “How accurate are Facebook user statistics?”

Says the report, “Statistics on the number of Facebook users are widely cited, especially given their impressive growth rates over the past few years, but little is published about how those statistics are compiled or what they actually represent.

“For example, a comparison of Facebook user data and Internet user data for some developing countries show there to be as many Facebook users as Internet users, whereas it can reasonably be assumed that not every Internet user is also on Facebook. How then can these numbers be explained?”

According to the report, “Country-level Internet user statistics are generally collected through official representative national household surveys and reflect the number of individual people in a given country having used the Internet during a certain reference period (for example, the past three/six/twelve months). The survey is often limited to a certain age group and does not include Internet use by enterprises, governments or other organizations.

“Facebook user statistics for individual countries, on the other hand, are published by several online businesses which compile the data from Facebook’s advertisement page, where numbers are to be found on the potential target audience (i.e. users) by country.”

The report notes according to Facebook’s Help Centre, “Facebook determines the location of a user based on IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, which can help identify the country or city where a user is physically located.”

It says that based on this information, Facebook “users” should perhaps be called “accounts”, given that a single user could be operating several accounts. “In addition to a personal account, a user can create an account for a school, business, organization or other group using a different e-mail address (so that there could, in theory, be more Facebook users than people within a country).

“In addition, while IP addresses make a good proxy indicator for how many accounts exist in a given country, they are not necessarily accurate, given that Facebook users could be accessing their Facebook accounts through servers located in countries other than their home country (for example, in cases where Facebook access might be restricted or where users are travelling).

Finally, the report says, the question of how “active” the account should be in order to be counted needs to be addressed. How many “dead” accounts are there and are they included in the user statistics? “Until answers to some of these questions are known, Facebook country-level “user” statistics should be treated with caution, particularly when making comparisons with Internet user statistics.”

Other key points made in the report:

(+) Fixed telephony continues to decline, as it has done since 2005, especially in developed countries, where a saturated fixed-line market has been overtaken by mobile-cellular telephony. Today, in developed countries, mobile-cellular telephony has reached saturation levels, too, recording penetration rates of over 100 per cent and a growth of only one per cent during the past year. In developing countries, by contrast, growth in mobile subscriptions is still buoyant, at 20 per cent, with no sign of a slowdown, thus confirming the con¬tinuation of the “mobile miracle”.

(+) While fixed-broadband penetration in developed countries had climbed to almost 24 per cent by end 2010, and growth is slowing, suggesting that saturation levels are being reached, it stands at only 4.2 per cent in developing countries, with major differences among countries and regions.

(+) Mobile Internet — at broadband speeds — was practically non-existent at the time when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set in 2000, and was in its infancy when the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) concluded in 2005. At the same time, the mobile revolution — including the emerging mobile-broadband Internet — is a key enabler for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals. The recognition of ICTs as a tool to generate income and employment, to provide access to business and health information and to enable e-learning and facilitate e-government is now well established.

(+) The number of Internet users has doubled over the past five years and there are now more than two billion Internet users worldwide. Growth rates in developing countries are high, and absolute numbers are driven by large countries such as China, Brazil, India, Nigeria and the Russian Federation. By end 2010, around 30 per cent of the world’s population was online — up from around 12 per cent in 2003 and six per cent in 2000.

(+) Besides the role of ICTs in achieving development goals, recent events such as the Arab spring and the publication of confidential political information on the Internet have demonstrated the power of communication and connectedness and enormously increased political interest in the information society. The spread of ICTs in societies where communication and access to information has hitherto been very limited is making ICTs an even more powerful tool than ever.

(+) Despite these encouraging trends, as at end 2010, 70 per cent of the world’s population (and nearly 80 per cent of the developing countries’ population) were not yet using the Internet, and even fewer via a broadband connection. In most developing countries, households, schools, hospitals and other public institutions located outside the major urban areas are not yet connected to high-speed Internet.

A key feature of the report is the ICT Development Index (IDI)*, which ranks 152 countries according to their level of ICT access, use and skills, and compares 2008 and 2010 scores. The data rank the Republic of Korea as the world’s most advanced ICT economy, followed by Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland.

Most countries at the top of the ranking are from Europe and Asia Pacific. The United Arab Emirates and Russia rank first within their respective regions and Uruguay ranks highest in South America. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Viet Nam, and Russia were some of the most dynamic countries between 2008 and 2010, with all of them making substantial improvements in their IDI ranks.

All countries included in the IDI improved their scores this year, underlining the increasing pervasiveness of ICTs in today’s global information society. “While the IDI leaders are all from the developed world, it is extremely encouraging to see that the most dynamic performers are developing countries,” said Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General. “The ‘mobile miracle’ is putting ICT services within reach of even the most disadvantaged people and communities. Our challenge now is to replicate that success in broadband.” This report shows that while ICT and income levels are closely related, getting the right public policy mix can drive faster take-up and a number of countries, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea have higher IDI levels than their income level would predict.

Mobile now ubiquitous

The spread of mobile networks in developing countries remains buoyant, with 20 per cent growth in mobile subscriptions over the past year and no signs of a slowdown.

In developed countries, on the other hand, mobile cellular penetration has reached saturation, with average penetration now over 100% at end 2010, compared with 70% in developing countries. With more than five billion subscriptions and global population coverage of over 90%, mobile cellular is now de facto ubiquitous.

Mobile broadband (‘3G’) services are also spreading quickly; by end 2010, 154 economies worldwide had launched 3G networks. Wireless broadband Internet access remains the strongest growth sector in developing countries, with mobile broadband growing by 160% between 2009 and 2010. Countries registering the highest gains in the IDI ‘ICT use’ sub-index are mostly those which have achieved a sizeable increase in mobile broadband subscriptions.

Conversely, the number of dial-up Internet subscriptions has been decreasing rapidly since 2007 and, based on current trends, the ‘death of dial-up’ is expected to become a reality over the next few years.

Affordability improves, but developing world still paying too much

Globally, telecommunication and Internet services are becoming more affordable. According to the 2010 ICT Price Basket (IPB), which spans 165 economies and combines the average cost of fixed telephone, mobile cellular and fixed broadband Internet services, the price of ICT services dropped by 18% globally between 2008 and 2010, with the biggest decrease in fixed broadband Internet services, where average prices have come down by 52%.

All economies in the IPB top ten have high GNI per capita, and, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, all are from Europe and Asia Pacific. In developed countries, average prices for ICT services correspond to no more than 1.5. % of monthly per capita income, compared with 17% in developing countries. But while broadband prices declined sharply worldwide, a high-speed Internet connection remains unaffordable in many low-income countries. For example, in Africa at end 2010, fixed broadband services cost on average the equivalent of 290% of monthly income, down from 650% in 2008.

Big disparities in speed and service quality

Comparing fixed- and mobile broadband technologies and services, the report also finds huge differences in network capacity, speed and quality.

In many developing countries, while the minimum speed for broadband (256 kbit/s) may be sufficient for email and other very basic services, it is inadequate for graphics-rich data-intensive applications and services. In addition, the report notes that the actual speed experienced by both fixed- and mobile broadband customers is often much lower than the advertised speed, and calls on ICT regulators to take steps to encourage operators to provide consumers with clearer information on coverage, speed and prices.

“A new digital divide is unfolding between those with high-speed/capacity/quality access – as is the case in many high-income countries – and those with lower speed/capacity/quality access, as is the case in many low-income countries,” said Mr Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. “Policy-makers should act swiftly to facilitate the spread of broadband and ensure that broadband services are faster, more reliable and affordable.”

The report also points to important qualitative differences between fixed- and mobile broadband services. The average speed of a mobile broadband subscription does not usually match that of a high-speed fixed subscription and usually includes data caps, unlike the ‘unlimited data’ fixed broadband offers that are now widely available. This represents a challenge for countries where mobile is the only broadband access technology available to end users – which is the case in many developing countries.

Targeting youth could be transformational

ITU research indicates that targeting students may be the most effective way to increase Internet use in developing countries. The Internet is only used by an around 21 per cent of the population in the developing world, compared with almost 70 per cent in developed countries.

The Measuring the Information Society 2011 report suggests that the main barriers to Internet use are not always related to infrastructure and price. Usage patterns show major differences related to education, gender, income, age and geographical location of users (urban/rural). For example, there is remarkably little difference in patterns of Internet use among highly educated, high-income individuals across the developing and developed worlds. People with higher educational degrees use the Internet more than those with a lower level of education, and in most countries more men than women are online.

Young people (below the age of 25) are online more than older people, and there is a higher level of Internet use among those currently in school compared with those no longer studying. Assuming that people will continue using the Internet once they have become accustomed to being online, those currently enrolled at school or university are more likely to be future Internet users, too. For young people all over the world, social networking and user-created content like blogs have become key drivers of Internet uptake.

Given that 46 per cent of the population in developing countries is below the age of 25 (representing more than 2.5 billion people), the report suggests that one of the most effective ways to increase Internet use in these countries is by targeting the younger generation – for example through connecting schools and other educational institutions, and improving enrolment rates.