When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic in March 2020, slightly more than half of the world’s citizens had access to the internet.Did people with internet access, then, benefit from reduced exposure to COVID-19?
The Digital Development Global Practice of the World Bank and the University of Greenwich looked into the question. We conducted research to find out how access to the internet and variety in speed affected adherence to pandemic-related movement restrictions in three Latin American countries: Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador.
Why does this matter?For instance, While these are all important features, in this case we focused our analysis specifically on internet speed.
The three countries reported different average download speeds, with Colombia and Ecuador performing better than El Salvador (see below). Moreover, connectivity features significantly varied among users, with significant diversity in terms of service affordability and quality within and across the three countries. This provided a good opportunity to look at how differences in internet quality affect exposure to COVID-19 in developing countries. This research is part of the Digital Economy Assessment for Latin America and the Caribbean (DE4LAC) initiative, a series of national digital ecosystems assessments and uses Ookla® Speedtest Intelligence® data.
Average fixed internet download speed by department (megabits per second)
The governments of the three countries adopted policies to limit the movement of people to tackle the spread of COVID-19, much like governments across the globe. Data from Meta, the parent company of Facebook, reported a substantial drop in mobility in all three countries, with maximum reductions of 53 percent in Colombia and 64 percent in both Ecuador and El Salvador in late March and early April. This decrease coincided with the introduction of stricter restrictions which were then relaxed in the early summer of the same year. By late 2020, the movement of people approached pre-pandemic levels (see below).
Download speeds varied significantly within countries. For instance, in El Salvador, the average download speed in the department (administrative unit similar to a province) of La Libertad was twice as fast as in the department of Morazán. In Colombia, the department of Bogota showed about 13 times higher download speeds than in the worst-performing department. Similar findings were observed in Ecuador. Overall, the analysis confirms the findings of other studies—
Next, we explored the relationship between the reduction in mobility induced by COVID-19 restrictions and the quality of fixed internet connections. We controlled for a range of socio-economic variables such as wealth index and GDP per capita, among others. First, we found that
For instance, residents of denser areas and those with greater wealth moved less. Second, our research showed thatIn short, access to good quality internet connections allows users to perform activities online instead of in person, which could reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
It highlights both the importance of internet access and the role played by the connection speeds, suggesting that poor access and low speed connectivity might increase vulnerability to health shocks. While the critical role of internet access during the pandemic was clear early on, until now there has not been data based analysis focused on the specific role of internet speed, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
This research indicates that