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New initiative aims to increase smartphone access to narrow mobile Internet use gap

8th October 2021

By: Natasha Odendaal

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Vodafone Group and the United Nations’ (UN’s) International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have partnered to launch an initiative aimed at identifying policy, commercial and circular- economy interventions to increase smartphone access.

Of the 3.7-billion people not connected to the Internet, 3.4-billion who live within range of mobile networks are currently not accessing the Internet, in part because of a lack of smartphone ownership, which the multistakeholder initiative aims to change by 2030.

The new dedicated working group, under the auspices of the ITU/UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, will be co-chaired by Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read and ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao, with launch partners that include the Alliance for Affordable Internet, GSMA, the government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group, and the World Wide Web Foundation.

With mobile broadband networks now covering 82% of the population of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the mobile use gap is six times bigger than the mobile coverage gap.

Mobile accounts for 86% of connections to the Internet in LMICs; however, billions of people continue to use feature phones, without an Internet connection, and the second- generation (2G) market continues to grow.

That means the digital divide is widening as the global pandemic accelerates 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 firms comment in a joint statement.

“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,” says Read.

“Smartphone access is a key element of this in LMICs, 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,” says UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology Office officer-in-charge Maria-Francesca Spatolisano.

Zhao, meanwhile, comments that achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multistakeholder 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,” he continues.

While Ghana and other countries have made great strides in the development of mobile infrastructure and the use 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, adds Ghana Communications and Digitalisation Minister Ursula Owusu-Ekuful.

“The mobile Internet use 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 Broadband Commission Working Group, in line with the Broadband Commission Global Targets 2025 on affordability and connectivity, will produce a report and set of recommendations, including an original analysis and data on the smartphone access gap; the 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 fourth-generation (4G) smartphones; and an analysis of initiatives or pilots designed to increase smartphone access. Vodafone Group also committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.

“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 offline,” says ITU telecommunication development bureau director Doreen Bogdan-Martin.

“We are aware of the many different socioeconomic complexities and dynamics which continue to prevent universal digital access in modern society, which should be a right, and not a privilege,” comments Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub.

To coincide with the creation of the new Working Group, Vodafone, Vodacom and Safaricom have also published the second ‘Africa.Connected’ report on accelerating 4G for sub-Saharan Africa.

The report, compiled by independent consultancy Caribou Digital, suggests a multistakeholder approach with four key steps to enhancing digital inclusion across African nations, where the mobile use gap is the largest in the world.

These include making 4G devices more accessible, as nearly 2.5-billion people live in countries where the cost of the cheapest available smartphone is unaffordable.

The report shows that 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 some potential solutions to address this.

The report further suggests investing in local smartphone manufacturing and currency availability, as well as in the demand for 4G services to build a market for the technology. This includes the digital skills required to use 4G services and increasing financing and support for digital startups and device manufacturers, which could create more inclusive products.

Another recommendation is to provide targeted financing for underserved demographics, including programmes 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.

Lastly, the paper says that repurposing the mobile spectrum currently used for 2G devices would enable more people to use 4G.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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