How to improve digital inclusion through the power of mobile connectivity

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  • Of the 3.8 billion people in the world who are still not connected to mobile internet, 88% live in an area already covered by mobile broadband but do not use mobile internet services. Those who are not online are more likely to be poorer, less educated, older, rural and female.
  • Large public-private initiatives, which are based on an understanding of the local context, needs and barriers of unconnected people, are the best way to bridge the usage gap.
  • Whole-of-government approaches are needed to overcome the complex barriers of affordability, digital literacy and skills, safety and security, relevance and accessibility.

The past two years have completely changed the world and the lens through which we see it. And through all of these changes, mobile connectivity has given families, businesses and entire economies a boost.

An era of meaningful connectivity

Today, more people are connected and more industries are interconnected via mobile, as we have moved from an era of simple connectivity to an era of meaningful connectivity. Data traffic on the mobile network has increased by 42% between Q3 2020 and Q3 2021 and, as we emerge from the pandemic, digitalization is accelerating across all sectors.

Meaningful connectivity involves shared human progress – a better future for all of us – that can be achieved through digital inclusion and ensuring people can use the internet to meet their needs. I believe that technological innovation is best used to ensure inclusion and prosperity, on an accessible, fair and safe platform for all.

Closing the gaps in mobile broadband coverage and usage

Today, just over half of the world’s population is connected to mobile Internet, but half is not. the 3.8 billion people who are not connected is made up of 450 million people who live outside the areas covered by mobile broadband, which corresponds to the coverage gap. The 3.4 billion people who live in areas covered by mobile broadband, but who are not yet using mobile internet, represent the usage gap.

Evolution of global coverage and usage of mobile internet

Image: GSMA

To date, the coverage gap has been filled by mobile operators’ investments in infrastructure, and over the past 5 years, an additional 1.4 billion people have been covered by mobile broadband. This is very good news, because research shows that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration leads to a 1.5% growth in gross domestic product. It is important to note that today more than 160 countries have a national broadband strategy.

COVID-19 has exposed digital inequalities globally and exacerbated the digital divide. Most of the world lives in areas with mobile broadband coverage, but more than a third (2.9 billion people) are still offline. Cost, not coverage, is the barrier to connectivity.

At Davos Agenda 2021, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-industry alliance to accelerate digital inclusion and connect critical sectors of the economy.

Through the 1 Billion Lives Challenge, the EDISON Alliance aims to improve 1 billion lives worldwide through affordable and accessible digital solutions in healthcare, financial services and education by 2025.

Learn more about the work of the EDISON Alliance in our Impact Story.

The biggest number, and the biggest challenge, is the 3.4 billion people usage gap, which shows that a narrow focus on infrastructure will be insufficient to tackle the digital divide. Those who are not online are more likely to be poorer, less educated, older, rural and female. For example, women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are 15% less likely to use mobile internet than men, meaning there is 234 million fewer women than men using mobile internet.

Breaking down barriers through joint public-private efforts

Focused and informed action is needed to address the needs of unconnected people and the barriers they face in accessing and using the Internet. Key barriers include affordability, particularly of handsets; digital literacy and skills; relevant content and services; safety and security concerns; and accessibility. Strategies must also consider structural issues that underlie disparities in uptake and use, such as differences in income and education, and restrictive social norms.

Given the scale of the uptake lag, long-term collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors are the only way to boost uptake.

Digital skills initiatives are paramount

Coordinated efforts to stimulate demand are needed. Private sector investment in mobile broadband infrastructure will be sustainable if there is a market to drive demand. Public policies have a key role to play, such as boosting digital skills, creating relevant content and reducing taxes on smartphones. In LMICs, national regulatory reforms and regional coordination aimed at reducing uncertainty can go a long way to supporting mobile operators and making investments less risky.

Public-private initiatives such as those led by the Broadband Commission, the EDISON Alliance, are essential to facilitate international dialogue and accelerate impact. We must ensure that consensus at the highest level translates into equally high ambition and results at the local level.

And of course, improving digital inclusion requires a whole-of-government approach. This can no longer be the sole concern of the Minister of ICT. The government’s challenge is complex and paramount are digital skills initiatives carried out in partnership with local actors and the private sector.

“Bridging the connectivity gaps in mobile internet is essential for the development of any country, especially as societies move into a post-pandemic digital age. The GSMA is a key champion of the EDISON Alliance, recommending strategies and helping to shape policies that make the mobile internet more inclusive and meaningful – ensuring that we leave no one behind,” said Rima Qureshi, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Verizon & Vice Chairman of the GSMA Board of Directors.

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