The World Bank report, Reaping Digital Dividends: Leveraging the Internet for Development in Europe and Central Asia, which was presented in Dushanbe on June 13, in particular, notes that the economies of Europe and Central Asia (ECA) are not taking full advantage of the internet to foster economic growth and job creation.

The residents of Central Asia and the South Caucasus reportedly pay some of the highest prices in the world for internet connections that are slow and unreliable.

Reaping Digital Dividends investigates the barriers that are holding back the broader adoption of the internet in ECA.

The report identifies the main bottlenecks and provides policy recommendations tailored to economies at varying levels of digital development.  It concludes that policies to increase internet access are necessary but not sufficient.  Policies to foster competition, international trade and skills supply, as well as adapting regulations to the changing business environment and labor markets, will also be necessary.  In other words, Reaping Digital Dividends not only requires better connectivity, but also complementary factors that allow governments, firms and individuals to make the most out of it.

The absence of a close relationship between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan hampers schemes to improve regional connectivity in Central Asia, resulting in prohibitive prices to access the Internet, according to the report. 

Reaping Digital Dividends notes that the proportion of individuals using the Internet (on any device) ranges from a high of 55 percent in Kazakhstan and 44 percent in Uzbekistan to 28 percent in Kyrgyzstan, 17 percent in Tajikistan, and just 12 percent in Turkmenistan.

Many of these disparities may be explained by differences in economic development. 

Central Asia and South Caucasus have the lowest rates of fixed broadband penetration in the region, while Western Europe and the Baltic States have the highest.

However, there is significant variation within each subregion.  In Central Asia, penetration ranges from less than 1 percent in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to more than 30 percent in Kazakhstan.

In Tajikistan, fixed-line Internet access remains limited to major urban areas, and the primary method of access is via dial-up or leased-line connections, while a handful of Internet service providers (ISPs) also provide satellite and fiber broadband services.

The report says Europe and Central Asia is a very heterogeneous region with regard to levels of Internet penetration.  For instance, people living in Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have almost universal Internet access.  At the other extreme, the majority of residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have not used the Internet. These two groups of countries are completely different in their historical pathway and level of development today.  However, they do share a similarity. All of them are landlocked, which is one of the most important barriers to good and affordable Internet access.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the average global price of a fixed broadband plan fell two-thirds between 2008 and 2013.  In Europe, broadband prices had declined earlier, but still fell more than 20 percent between 2009 and 2014.  The highest prices for fixed Internet are found in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey (more than US$110 per Mbit per month, in purchasing power parity [PPP]) and in Albania, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia (more than US$25, PPP).

The countries of Central Asia are reportedly experiencing significant challenges in the supply of Internet services, which explains why they have some of the lowest rates of Internet take-up in the ECA region.  The region is held back by constraints regarding both capacity and prices.  Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all charge high Internet Protocol (IP) transit prices of more than US$100 per Mbit/s per month.  As a result, end users pay some of the highest prices in the world for low-quality services.  

Geographic issues partially explain why these Central Asian countries experience connectivity challenges.  Being landlocked, they cannot access international bandwidth directly through a submarine cable, but only through cross-border terrestrial connections or satellite.  Besides mountain and desert terrain, the low population densities and large rural areas of this region raise per capita investment requirements.  Thus, Central Asian countries are highly dependent for connectivity on two of their large neighbors—China and Russia.

The report says that the Tajik government’s concerns over security issues on the southern route through Afghanistan are examples of political caution regarding development of the Internet.  Geopolitical issues, such as the difficult relationship between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, also hamper schemes to improve regional connectivity, as is the case elsewhere in ECA.  This has resulted in dependence on a limited number of international linkages and higher transit prices.  A shortage of investment financing and a lack of technical skills compound the issue of Internet access.