October 13, 2022

Digital Inclusion is Central to Sustainable Development Goal Progress

In its seventh annual report on how the mobile industry is impacting the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the GSMA demonstrates the industry's "continued commitment to the SDGs, while identifying areas where the industry needs to improve or accelerate its actions to deliver on the Global Goals by 2030." Moreover, the UK-based organization, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, says, "This year's report focuses on digital inclusion and shows how this relates to sustainable development through four main pillars: inclusive access, inclusive planet, inclusive connectivity and inclusive business."

The report shows that, six years after becoming the first industry to commit to the SDGs, the mobile sector continues to increase its contribution to the achievement of all 17 goals. However, despite mobile operators' continued commitment to the 2030 agenda, there is still a long way to go.

The report's other key findings include:
  • By the end of 2021, 5.3 billion people (66% of the global population) were using a mobile phone, while 4.3 billion people (55% of the global population) were also using mobile internet. This includes more than 3.3 billion mobile internet subscribers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where mobile is the primary and, in many cases only, form of internet access.
  • The 'usage gap' – those who live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but remain unconnected – narrowed for the third year in a row, but still stands at 3.2 billion people. The mobile industry and its partners continue to tackle the reasons for the usage gap, which generally relate to a lack of affordability, knowledge and skills, relevance, in addition to safety and security concerns.
  • Usage of mobile-enabled activities reached new heights in 2021, as mobile subscribers ventured further into online services.
    • 3.5 billion people (67% of mobile subscribers) used their phones to make video calls in 2021. This represents an additional 330 million people since 2020, aiding remote work and other online activities.
    • 2.5 billion people (48% of mobile subscribers) used their phone to access educational information for themselves or their children, representing an increase of 410 million since 2020.
    • 2.1 billion people (41% of mobile subscribers) used their phone to improve or monitor their health, representing an increase of 270 million since 2020.
  • Usage of mobile-enabled services remained considerably lower in developing countries. On average, the gap between the usage of mobile-enabled services in high-income countries and LMICs is 17 percentage points, underlining the importance of operator efforts to introduce more locally-relevant content and upgrade networks to enable access to services requiring a higher-quality connection.
  • The mobile industry is making continued progress on disclosing climate impact data and setting targets for emissions reductions. At the end of 2021, 66% of operators by connections and 82% by revenue disclosed their climate impacts, while 34% of operators by connections and 44% by revenue had set carbon reduction targets to be net zero by 2050.
  • Mobile and digital technology could enable just under 40% of the required CO2 reductions needed by 2030 within the top four largest-emitting industries. These four industries – manufacturing, power and energy, transport, and buildings – account for 80% of global emissions.
  • There has been strong growth in the issuance of sustainability bonds in the mobile sector. This highlights that operators are increasingly securing funding on the basis of achieving social and environmental – rather than purely financial – targets.
  • With stakeholders getting smarter and more discerning when it comes to ESG claims, an effective and consistent approach to measuring and communicating performance is more important than ever. The GSMA has recently launched ESG Metrics for Mobile, a first-of-its-kind mobile sector ESG reporting framework featuring ten industry-specific KPIs. The KPIs will allow stakeholders to gain a much deeper understanding of the industry’s nuances and contexts, and create opportunities for the industry to demonstrate its impact in a more consistent manner.

With respect to the mobile industry's SDG contributions, the report notes the industry increased its impact on all 17 SDGs in 2021, with the average year-on-year increase accelerating compared with 2020. The average SDG impact score across the 17 SDGs reached 53, up from 49 in 2020 and 32 in 2015, meaning the mobile industry is achieving 53% of what it could potentially contribute to the SDGs. Other highlights include:
  • There are now eleven SDGs where mobile's contribution is over 50, compared to six in 2020 and none in 2015.
  • The mobile industry continues to achieve its highest impact on SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, driven by the reach of mobile networks and take-up of mobile internet services.
  • The biggest improvements were recorded in the industry's contribution to SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 4: Quality Education. This is due to the increasing proportion of people using mobile for life-enhancing activities such as accessing government services, applying and searching for jobs and obtaining educational information for themselves or their children.

In its concluding remarks, the report accurately explains: "As the primary mean of accessing internet for billions of people and the transforming power behind every single industry, mobile connectivity is a key platform for economic development and many other life-enhancing services." However, the report also points out that "as more activities move online, unconnected populations will be at greater risk of exclusion from digital services. As a result, the mobile industry must continue to work together with its stakeholders (including governments, other industries, civil society and the international community) to accelerate digital inclusion and unlock mobile's full potential to address global issues."

I appreciate how, as explained in GSMA's press release, "The report demonstrates how people with access to fast, reliable networks are able to stay connected to friends and family, work remotely, access education and health services, build innovative businesses, improve efficiencies and reduce carbon emissions." However, the announcement crucially points out that "[t]hose without access...are most vulnerable to economic and social disruption, and risk falling further behind as the world emerges from the pandemic, especially as online services become even more integral to society."

What do you think of the report's findings? What are your recommendations for closing the mobile internet usage gap?

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.

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