Brent Messenger: An internet connection can lift people out of poverty (yes, really)

Over 3 billion people still lack internet access and can't fully participate in the global economy.

In 2019, for the first time, a majority of the world's 7.7 billion people used the internet.

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That's an amazing milestone -- but a sobering one, as well. It means over 3 billion people still lack internet access and can't fully participate in the global economy. Boosting broadband access, both in disadvantaged American communities as well as in developing countries, is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal to lift people out of poverty.

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The internet has bolstered economic prosperity worldwide. It's made it easier for people to find work and develop new skills. It has spawned entire industries, such as e-commerce and cloud computing, from scratch. And it's unlocked new ways for business owners to raise capital and attract customers.

But not everyone has benefited from this progress. Many people can't afford an internet connection or live in areas without the necessary broadband infrastructure. In more than two dozen countries, less than 20 percent of the population uses the internet. And in places like Chad, Liberia, and the Central African Republic, that figure drops to 10 percent.

Even in the United States, high-speed internet remains unavailable in many communities. Nearly a quarter of America's rural population lacks access to high-speed broadband. That makes it nearly impossible to work remotely. It also makes it tough for any would-be entrepreneurs in those areas to build and grow businesses.

Unsurprisingly, rural employment grew 0.5 percent annually from 2010 to 2017, compared to 1.8 percent in urban areas.

Expanding internet access would turbocharge economic growth. In developing nations, increasing broadband penetration by just 10 percent could raise per capita incomes by 15 percent, according to a Deloitte analysis. If developing countries enjoyed the same level of internet access as developed nations, they could add $2.2 trillion to their combined GDPs.

Internet access helps people to reach their full potential. Consider the story of Fahim, a graphic designer from Bangladesh from a low-income family. Fahim suffers from Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic condition that causes his muscles to gradually degenerate and confines him to his home.

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His mother sells hand-sewn quilts, and Fahim used some of those earnings to purchase a laptop and an internet connection. He taught himself graphic design and began selling his services online through a marketplace developed by my company, Fiverr. He now earns a steady income and even bought his family a plot of land for a new home.

Fighting poverty requires an array of initiatives. But subsidizing broadband access is among the most impactful. That's because, rather than just supplying money and food -- the traditional "give the man a fish" approach to development -- this strategy enables people to fish for themselves.

Plenty of research shows that when people gain internet access, they put their skills to use. Between 2002 and 2006, employment and private earnings grew faster in rural counties with greater internet access. A Brookings Institution analysis found that a 1 percent increase in a state's broadband penetration increases employment by 0.3 percent annually.

What's more, these figures likely understate the benefits of broadband expansion. The future of the workforce is one in which skilled professionals can ply their trades from anywhere with an internet connection. With all people able to access work virtually if they chose to do so, economic productivity would surge.

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Some groups have already embraced broadband expansion as a poverty reduction strategy.

For instance, the International Finance Corporation and World Bank have worked to improve internet access in Africa for about a decade. They've collaborated with private sector organizations and local governments to build the necessary infrastructure. These efforts have boosted employment in some areas by 10 percent.

Here in the United States, the nonprofit EveryoneOn has connected low-income Americans to affordable internet service and digital literacy training since 2012. Thus far, the program has brought the internet to more than 700,000 people.

More than 3 billion people still lack internet access. Now, governments and humanitarian organizations should do everything in their power to bridge the connectivity gap -- and give all people a chance to achieve their full potential.

Brent Messenger is vice president of public policy & community engagement at Fiverr.

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