November 5, 2023

While Mobile Internet Adoption Continues to Increase, the Growth Rate Slowed in 2022

The previous posts in the forum addressed the economic benefit 5G will bring to the Sub-Saharan Africa economy in the near future and the challenges and opportunities for scaling e-commerce adoption by small businesses in Africa. While 5G is expanding rapidly in low- and middle-income countries and smartphone adoption is projected to increase in the coming years, which will allow people to connect to critical services such as education, healthcare, and financial services, and provide income-generating opportunities, significant digital divides exists. Not only do these digital divides inhibit entrepreneurs from developing innovative localized technology solutions, but they prevent investors from providing essential financial capital and advisory support.

Therefore, it was with great interest to read GSMA's State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2023 that "considers the importance of not just mobile broadband coverage but 'meaningful connectivity' – users having a safe, satisfying, enriching and productive online experience that is affordable. This requires an understanding of the key barriers and enablers for meaningful connectivity, including infrastructure, affordability, skills, safety and security, and relevant content and services. Each of these is considered in this report."

Below are the report's key findings (copied in verbatim):
  • Mobile internet adoption continues to increase, with 57% of the global population (4.6 billion people) now using mobile internet – but the growth rate at which people are adopting mobile internet slowed in 2022. Only 200 million people started using mobile internet in 2022, compared to 300 million in 2021 and in 2020. Just over three quarters of the growth in mobile internet adoption in 2022 came from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where 95% of the unconnected population live. In least developed countries (LDCs), almost 30 million additional people started using mobile internet in 2022, meaning one in four people in LDCs are using mobile internet.
  • Mobile broadband coverage has remained relatively unchanged, with 95% of the global population living within the footprint of a mobile broadband network. With only marginal growth in coverage in 2022, the coverage gap – those living in areas without mobile broadband coverage – stands at almost 400 million people (5% of the global population). The remaining uncovered communities, which are predominantly rural, poor and sparsely populated, are the most challenging to reach.
  • Most of those not using mobile internet live in areas covered by mobile broadband. In 2022, 3 billion people (38% of the global population) lived in areas covered by mobile internet but did not use it. With mobile internet adoption outpacing network expansion, this usage gap has been shrinking slowly in recent years, from 40% in 2021 to 38% in 2022. However, the usage gap remains almost eight times the size of the coverage gap. Considering only adults aged 18 and above, 23% are still not using mobile internet despite being covered by a mobile broadband network. The majority of those living within mobile broadband coverage but not using it do not yet own a mobile phone.
  • Connectivity varies significantly between and within regions and countries, with 95% of the unconnected living in LMICs. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the largest coverage and usage gaps. In LMICs, adults in rural areas are still 29% less likely to use mobile internet than those in urban areas, while women are 19% less likely to use mobile internet than men. In LDCs, only 25% of the population use mobile internet, compared to 52% across LMICs overall and 85% in high-income countries (HICs).
  • The majority of the global population now own a smartphone, which is how most people are accessing mobile internet. At the end of 2022, 54% of the global population (4.3 billion people) owned a smartphone. Of the 4.6 billion people using mobile internet, almost 4 billion do so using a smartphone (49% of the global population) and around 600 million people do so using a feature phone (8% of the global population). There are also 350 million people who own a smartphone but do not use mobile internet.
  • 4G and 5G continue to expand, but 2G and 3G remain important sources of coverage in LMICs. While the overall broadband coverage gap has remained broadly unchanged since 2021, the deployment of 4G and 5G continues to expand. Globally, 90% of the population is now covered by 4G, and 32% by 5G (up from 25% in 2021). Almost three quarters of the 5G network expansion in 2022 was in Asia-Pacific, and there was particularly strong growth in 4G network expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, most mobile operators will continue to maintain 2G and 3G networks for the foreseeable future, with a significant portion of users continuing to use these networks, particularly in LMICs.
  • Data usage and network quality continue to increase but significant differences remain between HICs and LMICs. Monthly global mobile data traffic per user increased from 8.4 GB in 2021 to 11.3 GB in 2022 – the largest absolute increase since it was first tracked in 2015. Network quality improved across all regions, driven by improved networks and consumers migrating to 4G or 5G. For the first time, all regions now have average download speeds of at least 10 Mbps, while the global average download speed increased from 27 Mbps to 34 Mbps. HICs record download speeds four times greater than those in LMICs.
  • Awareness of mobile internet continues to grow but has slowed significantly since 2019. In nine of the 12 countries surveyed, more than 80% of the population was aware of mobile internet in 2022. However, women and those living in rural areas remain less likely to be aware of mobile internet, and lack of awareness remains a critical initial barrier to mobile internet adoption in some countries.
  • Affordability and skills remain the two greatest barriers to mobile internet adoption and use. Across the countries surveyed, for mobile users who are aware of mobile internet but don’t use it, the top reported barriers to adopting it remain affordability (particularly of handsets) and literacy/digital skills. Safety & security concerns and lack of perceived relevance were reported less often but are also important barriers. For example, among smartphone owners, lack of perceived relevance is often cited as a top barrier to mobile internet adoption in several countries.
  • Affordability of devices and data continues to disproportionately impact the underserved. Across LMICs, affordability of an entry-level, internet-enabled handset remained relatively unchanged, while affordability of data continues to improve across most regions. However, while the affordability of an entry-level device across all LMICs is equivalent to 16% of average monthly income, this increases to 40% for the poorest 40% of the population and 55% for the poorest 20%. Across LMICs, it is equivalent to 24% of average monthly income for women, compared to 13% for men.

GSMA's report also points out that barriers to digital inclusion are complex and interconnected:
  • Knowledge and skills: "Improving digital skills and literacy, as well as driving awareness and understanding of mobile internet and its benefits, is critical to increasing digital inclusion. Digital skills initiatives should focus on users' needs and circumstances."
  • Affordability of handsets and data: "Approaches to improve affordability should include efforts to lower the cost of internet-enabled handsets and data through innovative data pricing strategies and handset-financing options, in addition to adopting tax policies and providing targeted subsidies that promote the uptake of internet-enabled devices and data services."
  • Safety and security: "Concerns about safety and security, including online harassment or cyberbullying, misinformation, disinformation and fraud, are preventing people going online and having a positive internet experience. Appropriate mechanisms and frameworks that recognize these online risks should be put in place to help build consumer trust. Stakeholders should provide users, especially women, with the tools to increase their knowledge and skills to mitigate online risks."
  • 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 and in their own language."
  • 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 appreciate how the report addresses the importance of having reliable mobile connectivity for people to access essential services. As the GSMA points out, "In recent years, mobile operators and governments worldwide have been working on advancing digital inclusion, recognizing its transformative potential for societies. While there have been notable achievements and mobile internet adoption continues to grow, this report shows that progress has slowed. Furthermore, with an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, many are now further at risk of remaining unconnected."

What are your recommendations on how to bridge the digital divide?

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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