Breaking Barriers: Closing the Mobile Usage Gap and Fostering Digital Inclusion

Published 4 months ago
Denham 111

GSMA’s Director General Mats Granryd explains why rolling out global mobile broadband coverage is good, but it is not enough to close the mobile usage gap which is holding people back; joint measures by the mobile industry and policymakers will help break down the digital divide so that high-quality access to mobile services are available and affordable to all.

Chances are that you’re reading this article on a mobile device. But even if you’re not, you’re likely one of the 5.4 billion people – two-thirds of the global population – who use a mobile phone, and one of the 4.4 billion people worldwide who use mobile internet. Indeed, the number of mobile subscribers has increased significantly over the past few years, reflecting the substantial investments made by mobile operators worldwide in their connectivity and network infrastructure since the pandemic.

Indeed, the number of mobile subscribers has increased significantly over the past few years, reflecting the substantial investments made by mobile operators worldwide in their connectivity and network infrastructure since the pandemic.

But the most notable growth has been within low and middle-income countries (LMICs). Around 3.3 billion mobile internet subscribers now come from LMICs, where mobile is the primary – and in many cases only – form of internet access.

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Investment, collaboration and targeted, informed action by key stakeholders including mobile operators and policymakers will be critical to breaking down the digital divide and closing the usage gap. Next week in Rwanda we’ll open the doors to MWC Kigali, the perfect place to address and help erode some of the five key barriers to mobile internet adoption which we’ve identified as: affordability of handset devices and data services; lack of digital knowledge and skills; lack of relevant content or services; online safety and security concerns; and lack of access to services or enablers. As Africa’s digital transformation journey gains momentum, MWC Kigali is where powerful global innovators and political leaders from all sub-regions of the continent come together to push forward and create a better future for all.

To date, investments in mobile broadband infrastructure have brought connectivity to millions of people worldwide, enabling individuals to play an active role in the growing global digital economy. In fact, the investments made by operators have been so significant that they have closed the coverage gap to just 5%. In the past year alone, almost 300 million people from the world’s poorest regions became connected via mobile, in turn increasing individuals’ social and economic mobility, and narrowing the gender gap of mobile connectivity access.

The numbers have also been a powerful enabler in the delivery of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with mobile contributing strongly to eleven of the seventeen SDGs. In particular, it is playing a massive role in enabling Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure development (SDG9), as well as contributing to SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger) and 4 (Quality Education), as the smaller the connectivity gap, the more able populations are to search and apply for jobs, access government services, and educate themselves and their families online.

Where the connectivity gap closes, the usage gap prevails

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This progress made towards getting the majority of the world covered by mobile connectivity services seems like a very promising picture. But, despite this progress, we can’t get carried away. There’s still a long way to go.

Truly connecting citizens means more than bringing network coverage to where they live. Coverage and connectivity are just one side of the coin: being able to make use of these services is another.

Unfortunately, even though the connectivity gap is closing, in many regions, including Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the usage gap is widening – according to the GSMA’s State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2023, the usage gap still impacts 38% of the global population, a total of three billion people. That is equivalent to the entire populations of China, India, USA and Spain combined being unable to benefit from their access to mobile broadband networks.

But it affects people disproportionately. Currently, individuals without access to the internet tend to be poorer, less educated, women, rural, or people with disabilities. And, while we’re talking about a global issue, it’s one that is more likely to hit the world’s lowest-income countries – the usage gap rises to 59% when looking specifically at Sub-Saharan Africa. 

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The result? Missed opportunities and life chances: the usage gap is holding people back. Instead of taking an active role in our increasingly online world, people affected by the usage gap are less able to cope with this era’s unique economic and social disruptions. When people are excluded from the digital world, today’s challenges such as climate change, high energy prices and inflation are harder to overcome. It’s a vicious circle that prevents access to critical information and services such as healthcare, education, e-commerce, financial services and income-generating opportunities.

Breaking barriers to the usage gap

Tackling the barriers that are driving the usage gap is one of the GSMA’s key priorities. We have been working with partners for over a decade to address these key obstacles.

One of the largest components of the usage gap is that large swathes of the population can’t afford the handsets needed to access digital services from the outset. After all, if you haven’t the financial means to get connected, then all the other barriers are inconsequential. Indeed, it’s a challenge we’re inviting network operators, industry stakeholders, policymakers and even world leaders to come together to tackle at MWC Kigali.

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The good news is that the barriers driving the usage gap are by no means insurmountable, and we believe they can be overcome. But we need a stronger collective effort to do so. From investing in digital skills training to improving the affordability of services, reducing spectrum fees, or cutting back on unnecessary regulation, there’s a lot that can be done.

Taking tangible action, together

It’s time to break down the barriers to the usage gap, and to take the steps now to ensure a fairer world for all. We can meet the challenge, but we are calling on the entire mobile ecosystem to come together on this important issue. Operators, manufacturers, governments, regulators; we all have a crucial role to play in finding solutions, and closing the usage gap so that generations to come can benefit from the best our connected world can provide.

Join us at MWC Kigali to learn about the future of Africa’s rapidly growing digital economy.

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