A major new initiative to grant additional 3.4 billion people access and use of the internet through a smartphone by 2030 has been launched by Vodafone Group Plc and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ specialised agency for information and communication technologies, to address the global digital divide.
This is the first multi-stakeholder initiative to address global mobile internet access gap by Vodafone Group and the ITU as co-chairs via a dedicated Working Group under the auspices of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.
This is one of the fall-outs of the ongoing UN General Assembly (UNGA), New York, U.S., during which promoters observed that with mobile broadband (4G) networks now covering 82% of the population of Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), the mobile usage gap is six times larger than the mobile coverage gap.
Of the 3.7 billion people not connected to the internet, 3.4 billion live within range of mobile networks but are currently not accessing the internet, partly due to a lack of smartphone ownership.
In line with the Broadband Commission Global Targets 2025 on affordability and connectivity, the new Working Group will identify policy, commercial and circular-economy interventions to increase smartphone access, according to a statement, yesterday, by the African Media Agency (AMA).
Co-chaired by Vodafone Group CEO, Nick Read, and ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, the Group’s launch partners also include: the Alliance for Affordable Internet; GSMA; the Government of Ghana; Safaricom; Smart Africa; Vodacom Group; and the World Wide Web Foundation.
Mobile accounts for 86% of connections to the internet in LMICs3, emphasising the importance of mobile in addressing this issue. Yet billions of people continue to use ‘dumb’ feature phones, without an internet connection, and the 2G market continues to grow.
That means the digital divide is widening as the global pandemic has accelerated the emergence of digital societies and smartphones are increasingly an essential gateway to access public services – including education and medical support – financial services, jobs and to run businesses.
The Working Group believes that accelerated use of digital public services during the pandemic, mobile money, and the need for digital skills for jobs has made mobile internet access through a smartphone more important than ever.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Vodafone Group, Nick Read, was quoted as saying: “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. 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.”
On his part, CEO, Vodacom Group, Shameel Joosub, said: “We are aware of the many different socio-economic complexities and dynamics which continue to prevent universal digital access in modern society, which should be a right and not a privilege. The pledge by the United Nations, Vodafone Group Plc and the ITU to increase smartphone access for 3.4 billion people around the world is timely and important.
“As Vodacom works to connect the next 100 million African people through its Africa.Connected campaign, we look forward to supporting Vodafone’s ambition to ensure that no one is excluded from the global digital economy, and may enjoy access to education, jobs, public and financial services.”
Similarly, ITU Secretary General, Houlin Zhao, said: “Achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multi-stakeholder approach. 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.”
On her part, Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, said: “The UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation aims to achieve universal connectivity by 2030. Smartphone access is a key element of this in low- and middle-income countries where mobile is the principal route to the internet. As such, this Working Group can have an important role in ensuring that the shift to digital technology is beneficial and makes our societies more equal and not less.”
Also commenting, Minister for Communications and Digitalisation, Ghana, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, said: “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% of people in West Africa are covered by mobile broadband networks but do not use the internet. 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.”
The UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation aims to achieve universal connectivity by 2030. Smartphone access is a key element of this in low- and middle-income countries where mobile is the principal route to the internet.
The Broadband Commission Working Group will produce a report and set of concrete recommendations including:
· Original analysis and data on the smartphone access gap;
· Quantification of the social and economic impact of providing everyone with smartphone access by 2030, including assessment of moving users from 2G feature phones to 4G smartphones; and,
· Analysis of initiatives or pilots designed to increase smartphone access. Vodafone Group has committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.
For the Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, “This partnership is key to expand access to the internet. I am confident that the outcome report will provide guidance to all our stakeholders as we prepare for the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in 2022, to build a world where no one is left off-line.”
4G in sub-Saharan Africa
To coincide with the creation of the new Working Group, Vodafone, Vodacom and Safaricom also published the second ‘Africa.Connected’ report on accelerating 4G for sub-Saharan Africa.
The report by independent consultancy, Caribou Digital, suggests a multi-stakeholder approach with four key steps to enhancing digital inclusion across African nations, where the mobile usage gap is the largest in the world. These are:
Making 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.
Providing 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-farming 2G spectrum – Repurposing mobile spectrum currently used for 2G devices would enable more people to use 4G.