Working from home is the new normal for millions of people worldwide. Yet data shows that six in 10 users don't have internet connections fast enough for smooth teleworking. Has the pandemic deepened the digital divide?
Elia Merguet began working as an external consultant for a German federal ministry in Berlin in summer 2020, months after the coronavirus pandemic had begun.
"I worked almost entirely from home from the beginning," he says. Yet, working from his kitchen table in Berlin's Wedding district turned out to be harder than expected.
"I have actually already moved house since I've been in Berlin — and I had internet problems in both places."
Merguet explains that the problems were not as extensive as in Hanover where he lived previously, but still made doing his job hard.
"In the end I stopped using Wi-Fi and instead got an Ethernet cable," he says. "I've had to speak to the IT providers at my job so many times for help. The biggest challenge has been in video conferences, which is a big part of my job. I always have to turn my video off."
Working from home can be a challenge in itself: no office chair, no canteen, no colleagues to chat with over coffee. But with the coronavirus here to stay for the foreseeable future, millions of people around the world have gotten used to sitting at the kitchen table just like Merguet to work on spreadsheets or take conference calls. But without a fast and reliable connection, slow downloads, choppy audio or video calls that keep freezing up can make life difficult for telecommuters.
Merguet isn't the only one who has had to wind down data-intensive tasks. Even in well-off countries like Germany, internet problems are common. DW used open-source data from M-Lab to compare the speed of internet connections around the globe. M-Lab collects data from many millions of speed tests that users perform every month.
DW analyzed cities with more than a million inhabitants and more than 10,000 speed tests logged by M-Lab. This data shows that speeds vary widely around the globe. North American cities have faster median download rates than cities on other continents. Median speed means that half of the users' speed tests showed slower connections and the other half showed faster connections. The median can be considered the halfway point in a data set. With a median download speed of 23 Megabits per second (Mbps), Berlin gets 10th place among European cities of more than a million inhabitants.
In Budapest, engineers Eszter Kiss and Imre Kormendy have been working from home since March. In their small house on the southern edge of the Hungarian capital, both are sitting in front of their laptops. They have to take part in video conferences every day, and the entire work process takes place online, says Kiss in an interview with DW. This would turn internet failures into an absolute disaster, says Körmendy.
In Hungary, however, this hardly ever happens. The country has one of the fastest and most stable broadband networks in the world. This is due to many different factors, explains Attila Miszori. He works for the operator of the Hungarian Internet Exchange BIX in Budapest, through which service providers exchange internet traffic between their networks.
"We're a small country, so the data only has to travel short distances," Miszori tells DW. In addition, Hungary, in contrast to Germany, invested in fast fiber-optic cables at an early stage.
Download rates of 50 Mbps are completely sufficient, says Attila Miszori of the Budapest Internet eXchange
However, a particularly fast network, like the one in Hungary, isn't necessary for smooth work from home. Download rates of 50 Mbps are completely sufficient, even if a whole family is working from home at the same time, says Miszori. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommends internet speeds of 25 Mbps for those who work from home and need to perform data-intensive tasks such as downloading files and video conferences at the same time.
Yet 61% of all speed measurements collected by M-Lab this year were below 25 Mbps. Take Demilade Oladugba in Lagos, Nigeria, for example. In a recent speed test, the 21-year-old graphic designer and web developer was able to download data at only 1.7 Mbps. "I am not satisfied at all," he tells DW. Oladugba lives in the Surulere neighborhood of Lagos, which is West Africa's economic and financial hub and the continent's most populous city.
He says he has been freelancing from home since the beginning of the pandemic. "That is why I am very dependent on the internet. But it is not performing as well as it should," Oladugba says in a voice call that proves his point: the audio is delayed and sometimes unintelligible.
"It makes my work more difficult. Sometimes I finish a project and want to show it to clients. And then files go back and forth with corrections and that takes a lot of time. It is quite stressful," says Oladugba. He has called his provider several times to ask why the internet speed is so slow — without getting a satisfactory answer. His subscription, he says, already comes at a price that most Nigerians can't afford. Still, he is thinking about switching to a faster — and even more costly — connection.
Twenty years ago, scientists began speaking of a digital divide between those with access to the internet and those without. In the meantime, mobile phones have brought the internet to many remote and rural places. Yet users in affluent urban areas tend to be better equipped with computer hardware and broadband subscriptions than those who live in poorer, rural areas, says Elvis Melia, a researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
He says the pandemic has deepened the digital divide that many had believed was closing. "I think it is about reliability and accessibility," Melia tells DW. "Can you afford it? And also: do you have devices that work? Not juggling your broken screen cellphone and your broken screen laptop, not having to fear power shortages."
Melia, who also works as a digital consultant for several African governments, questions the idea that internet speed is the main challenge for those working from home. "It is not a big problem today and it is especially not going to be a problem tomorrow", he says, pointing out that companies such as Alphabet (formerly Google) or SpaceX are working on balloon and low-orbit satellite solutions that are designed to bring fast internet even to remote parts of the world.
Melia predicts that five years from now, everybody in the world will have access to fast mobile internet.
"Of course you can't sit and wait for that," says Melia. Investment in infrastructure is still necessary, he says. "Look at your feet, invest at the ground. But also, take a break once in a while and look at the sky and see what's coming from above. In this case, literally. You need to be ready when it all changes."
Many experts agree that speed is not the only factor to be looked at when trying to assess how people around the world can make use of the internet. The Inclusive Internet Index tries to measure how easily available and affordable connections are around the world. It also examines a population's digital literacy and the extent of relevant content in local languages.
Nigeria scores fifth on the African continent in the Inclusive Internet Index. The researchers consider mobile and fixed broadband subscription prices comparatively low in relation to income. Yet, the country lags behind in network quality and digital literacy.
"Kenya is the country everybody looks at," says Melia of the third-highest ranked African country in the index, just behind South Africa and Morocco. "Kenya is doing great for a relatively poor country. You can't extrapolate that to poorer countries like Niger and Burkina Faso. But I do think there are other countries that are taking their lead from Kenya."
Melia's advice for governments in the global south: try to create more digital jobs or attract more digital companies, especially in machine learning, where people for example tag images to train computers in visual recognition. Because in the end, the fastest internet connections will not help much if people cannot find work to do remotely.
Back in the north, unemployment rates are also set to rise as long as the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't subside. Those who have a job that they can do from home might count themselves lucky — even if it means struggling with routers, cables and frozen screens.