How Bad Is Africa’s Internet?

A Simple Tool for Measuring Digital Development

By R. Les Cottrell

This article is part of the feature “How Bad Is Africa’s Internet?.”

The standard metric that governments and telecom operators use to compare information and communications technology (ICT) across countries is known as the ICT Development Index, or IDI. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union calculates this benchmark for each of 155 countries using 11 indicators of a population’s ICT access, usage, and skills. Such indicators include the percentage of households with Internet access, the number of individuals with mobile-broadband subscriptions, and the literacy rate among adults.

Most people consider the IDI to be an accurate and trustworthy measure of the digital divide between countries. But the index has some limitations. For instance, it often relies on sources such as telecom operators or government agencies that may be politically biased. Compiling it is also time-consuming and expensive, requiring an army of data gatherers and statistical analysts. For this reason, it is updated only yearly.

The Ping End-to-end Reporting (PingER) project, on the other hand, collects data on ICT infrastructure using the simple, computer-based ping test. I lead the project, which is based at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, in California. Results are entirely objective and can be fetched instantly and thus analyzed more quickly and frequently. Comparing the latest PingER data with IDI results reveals that Internet throughput to a country correlates nicely with its IDI, as shown in the graph below. On average, a tenfold increase in throughput corresponds to about a threefold improvement in the IDI.

I don’t suggest that PingER data should replace the IDI. But it can provide a useful complement, particularly for monitoring ICT development in countries not included in the IDI report and for drawing attention to curious inconsistencies between the two metrics.