An internet connection is increasingly vital in the modern world to unlock opportunities. Faster connections can mean even greater opportunity, but any connection is better than none.
According to research (PDF) by the ITU last year, of the 3.7 billion people who are not connected to the internet, 3.4 billion live within the range of a mobile network. A major part of the reason is due to a lack of smartphone ownership.
A new working group has been created under the auspices of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development that aims to identify policy, commercial and circular-economy interventions to increase smartphone access.
The working group is co-chaired by Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read and ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.
“Vodafone is honoured to be part of this monumental global initiative with the UN, to improve the lives of billions of people through smartphone access. As our societies become more digital, everyone should have the ability to find jobs, be able to get public services, financial services and critical information that are increasingly only available through the internet,” said Read.
“This is such a complex challenge that no network operator, device manufacturer, financial services provider or national government can solve on their own – but working together we can break through the barriers.”
With 4G networks now covering 82 percent of the population in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), the mobile usage gap is six times larger than the mobile coverage gap.
“Achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multi-stakeholder approach,” commented Zhao.
“I am pleased to co-chair this newly established Working Group, which will also help address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that we put smart devices in the hands of those who are left behind.”
The working group will set out to:
- produce original analysis and data on the smartphone access gap;
- quantify the social and economic impact of providing everyone with smartphone access by 2030, including moving users from 2G feature phones to 4G smartphones;
- analyse initiatives or pilots designed to increase smartphone access.
Other launch partners of the working group include the Alliance for Affordable Internet, GSMA, the government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group, and the World Wide Web Foundation.
A report titled Africa.Connected has been published to coincide with the formation of the working group. The report highlights that a multi-stakeholder approach consisting of four key steps will be needed to increase digital inclusion in a region where the mobile usage gap is the largest in the world:
- Make 4G devices more accessible – Nearly 2.5 billion people live in countries where the cost of the cheapest available smartphone is unaffordable. Expanding device financing schemes for those with poor or no credit history; reducing the amount of tax on 4G smartphone imports and increasing local manufacturing of devices within Africa are suggested as ways to address this issue.
- Invest in the demand for 4G services – 375 million young Africans are expected to enter the labour market by 2030 and will need the skills to excel in a digital economy. The report suggests increasing financing and support for digital start-ups and that device manufacturers could create more inclusive products.
- Provide targeted financing for underserved demographics – Programmes need to take account of, and target, the large gender gap and rural-urban gap that exist in respect of device ownership in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Re-farm 2G spectrum – Repurposing mobile spectrum currently used for 2G devices would enable more people to use 4G.
“While Ghana and other countries have made great strides in the development of mobile infrastructure and the usage of digital services such as mobile money, it is noticeable that 45 percent of people in West Africa are covered by mobile broadband networks but do not use the internet,” explained Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Ghana’s Minister for Communications and Digitalisation.
“Addressing the mobile internet usage gap is vital for the long-term economic development of my country and many others across the world and will require new partnerships and focused action from a range of organisations.”
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