May 29, 2021

GSMA Report Presents Policy Considerations to Bridge the Digital Divide in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

According to report published by GSMA, a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide, "The world is more connected than ever before, which is improving people's lives and transforming socioeconomic development. The importance of mobile internet cannot be overstated, as it is the primary way most people get online."

While 93 percent of the global population has access to mobile broadband, which has been helped by mobile operators investing over $870 billion in capital expenditure over the past five years, mobile internet adoption has not kept pace. "Of the 4 billion people who do not yet use mobile internet, the vast majority – 3.4 billion – live in an area already covered by mobile broadband," the report explains. "This gap in mobile internet use has not significantly changed over the past several years, and is now six times greater than the mobile coverage gap (see Figure 1)."

Moreover, "Those who are still unconnected are disproportionately poorer, less educated, rural, female and persons with disabilities. If no action is taken, the GSMA estimates that 40 percent of the population in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will still be offline in 2025. This shows that infrastructure policies alone will not bridge the digital divide, and that it is increasingly urgent for policies to focus on demand-side challenges to achieve inclusive digital growth."

The GSMA "report outlines policy considerations to address the main barriers to mobile internet adoption and use, to ensure everyone can participate in an increasingly connected world. The report also provides a framework for action in response to the need for a comprehensive policy approach to achieve the greatest results (see Figure 2)."

Below are five barriers to mobile internet adoption and use:
  1. Affordability (individuals cannot afford devices, data plans or other service fees);
  2. Knowledge and digital skills (people are unaware of mobile internet and its benefits or do not have the necessary skills to use digital technology);
  3. Relevance (local digital ecosystems are underdeveloped, and there is a lack of content, products and services that meet user needs and capabilities);
  4. Safety and security (individuals and communities are concerned about the negative aspects and risks of the internet, such as harassment, theft, fraud and online security); and
  5. Access (individuals do not have access to networks and enablers, such as electricity and formal IDs, or devices and services are not accessible enough).
The GSMA then presents its framework for action followed by key policy considerations to eliminate the aforementioned barriers:

• Collect and publish granular, reliable and gender-disaggregated data related to mobile internet adoption and use in accordance with international guidelines and standards.
• Conduct and support research to better understand the context, circumstances and needs of individuals not yet using mobile internet.
• Set policy priorities, targets and budgets based on data-driven assessments of the barriers to mobile internet adoption and use.
• Develop policy strategies that address all barriers in a holistic manner through a well-defined, collaborative governance model.
• Conduct regular, impartial impact evaluations and adapt digital inclusion strategies based on these insights.

Handset affordability
• Remove sector-specific taxes and fees on handsets.
• Refrain from imposing costly barriers to importing handsets to incentivize local production.
• Enable innovative financing mechanisms for devices.
• Partner with the industry to provide device subsidies to targeted user groups.

Data affordability
• Create an enabling environment for mobile operators to achieve operational and other cost efficiencies.
• Adopt tax principles that promote uptake of mobile data services.
• Enable innovative data pricing strategies and pricing flexibility in competitive markets.
• Consider data subsidies for targeted user groups.

• Focus digital skills strategies on use cases that help targeted user segments meet their life goals and needs.
• Use a comprehensive framework focused on competency areas and proficiency levels to design effective digital skills training programs.
• Adapt digital skills strategies to local contexts to reflect how most users access the internet, which in LMICs is through a mobile device.
• Launch awareness campaigns on both the benefits and potential risks of using mobile internet and how to address them.
• Invest in training and capacity building initiatives, including through win-win partnerships with the private sector.
• Incorporate digital skills development across education policies at all levels and provide students with access to suitable devices to practice and learn.

• Create an environment for digital businesses to thrive.
• Enable the digital transformation of priority sectors and SMEs.
• Facilitate the growth of start-up ecosystems.
• Accelerate the digitalization of public services.

• Put appropriate mechanisms in place to address online safety concerns, including disinformation, harassment and child sexual abuse.
• Implement horizontal data privacy frameworks that protect the fundamental right to privacy while also giving organizations the flexibility to provide innovative services in a responsible and accountable manner.
• Support individuals to protect personal information and recognize fraud.
• Implement effective strategies to tackle handset theft and the trading of counterfeit devices.
• Refrain from the use of restriction orders, such as mandated network or service shutdowns.

• Implement policies that improve access to mobile broadband and electricity.
• Ensure that sales and training facilities are accessible for underserved populations, including women and persons with disabilities.
• Ensure inclusive and transparent registration processes for mobile and digital services.
• Support the development of simplified designs and accessibility features for persons with low literacy and disabilities.

The report importantly asserts that the "benefits of mobile internet are available to more people each day. However, in a world increasingly dependent on digital technologies, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Connecting the 3.4 billion people that live within reach of a mobile broadband network, but are still offline, requires a collective effort and a data-driven and holistic approach to addressing the main barriers to mobile internet adoption."

What is more, I concur that the "responsibility for building an inclusive digital society extends beyond any single sector, and demands action from all stakeholders spearheaded by a proactive government. Only by recognizing and acting on our shared responsibility to advance mobile internet use can we ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in an increasingly connected world."

Do you agree with the report's recommendations? What ideas do you have on how to bridge the digital divide in LMICs?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.