December 15, 2022

Report Provides Recommendations for Closing Mobile Internet's 'Usage Gap' and Getting More People Online

In the latest version of its annual report of the state of mobile internet connectivity, the GSM Association (GSMA) notes that "By the end of 2021, 4.3 billion people were using mobile internet, an increase of almost 300 million since the end of 2020. Growth in mobile internet adoption has almost entirely been driven by people living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). As a result, for the first time, half of the population in LMICs is using mobile internet."

Funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) via the GSMA Mobile for Development Foundation, the UK-based organization, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, explains that the findings of its "report are based on the GSMA Consumer Survey and the GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index (MCI), along with a range of other industry reports. The GSMA Consumer Survey has been carried out every year since 2017 to understand access and use of mobile and mobile internet in LMICs." What is more, "This report presents the latest updates on mobile internet connectivity globally and by region, with a focus on LMICs, where 94% of the unconnected population live. For the first time, it also presents the data on connectivity for adults only. The report then examines mobile broadband coverage and infrastructure."

The report's key findings include:
  • Mobile internet use has reached 55% of the world's population.
  • Mobile broadband coverage continues to slowly expand, with 95% of the world's population covered by a mobile broadband network.
  • At the end of 2021, there were 3.2 billion people living within the footprint of a mobile broadband network but not using mobile internet.
  • Connectivity varies significantly by different socioeconomic groups and by country income levels, with 94% of the 'unconnected' living in LMICs.
  • Across all regions, there are now more mobile connections using 3G or 4G/5G smartphones than basic or feature phones.
  • Data usage and network quality continue to increase – but with a persistent gap between high- and lower-income countries.
  • Across the surveyed countries, mobile internet users are using their mobile phones more frequently for a range of online activities.
  • Awareness of mobile internet continues to grow but has slowed significantly since 2019.
  • Affordability and skills remain the two greatest barriers to mobile internet adoption and use.
  • Across LMICs, affordability of data has continued to improve but affordability of entry-level internet-enabled handsets has remained relatively unchanged.

The report correctly notes that a collective effort is needed to bridge the digital divide. "Strong collective effort is needed to achieve meaningful connectivity, which allows users to have a safe,  satisfying, enriching and productive online experience that is affordable. It requires informed, targeted action by all stakeholders, including mobile operators, policymakers, international partners and the broader private sector." Crucially, "Such strategies should factor in the structural issues underpinning the disparities in adoption and use, such as differences in income and education levels, and restrictive social norms."

The GSMA concludes its report by presenting the following barriers that should be addressed to bridge the digital divide:
  • Knowledge and digital skills: Improving digital skills and literacy, as well as driving awareness and understanding of mobile internet and its benefits, is critical to increase digital inclusion. Digital skills initiatives should focus on the life needs and circumstances of users.
  • Affordability of handsets and data: Affordability of handsets and data remains a key challenge. Approaches to improve affordability should include efforts to lower the cost of internet-enabled handsets and data, innovative data pricing strategies and handset financing options, in addition to providing targeted subsidies and tax policies that promote the uptake of internet-enabled devices and data services.
  • Relevance: Local digital ecosystems in many LMICs remain underdeveloped and under-resourced. Investment in local digital ecosystems and an enabling policy environment can accelerate growth in local content, services and applications that meet the needs of people in their communities, in their own language.
  • Safety and security: Concerns about safety and security, including online harassment or cyberbullying, misinformation, disinformation and fraud, are keeping people from going online and having a positive internet experience. Stakeholders should provide users, especially women, with the tools to increase their knowledge and skills to mitigate online risks. Appropriate mechanisms and frameworks that recognize these online risks should be put in place to help build consumer trust.
  • Access: Using the internet depends on enablers such as electricity, formal identification, sales agents and accessibility features. Stakeholders can increase mobile internet adoption by focusing on, for example, facilitating inclusive and transparent registration processes for mobile, and making services, sales channels and training facilities accessible to underserved groups, such as women and persons with disabilities, alongside improving accessibility features.

I agree with the premise that ensuring people are able to use mobile internet, rather than focusing purely on network coverage, is the key to driving digital inclusion for 3.2 billion people worldwide. While this number impressively represents the equivalent of 40 percent of the world's population who are covered by a mobile broadband network, more must be done to reduce barriers that prevent them from getting online or what the industry calls the 'usage gap.'

What are your recommendations for eliminating the usage gap?

By the way, I recommend watching a webinar the GSMA produced that includes a discussion with the report's authors.

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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