Only half of people today are in a position to access the internet. Many use their mobile phones to reach a range of life-enhancing online services in areas such as healthcare, skills and education, finance and jobs, as well as information and entertainment. Through mobile networks, digital birth registrations are enabled for millions of children who lack a formal identity. Financial inclusion has also become possible for an estimated 1.7 billion people excluded from traditional banking systems, giving them access to insurance, credit and also to energy through simple payment systems.
The world’s most important to-do list – the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – reflects the global consensus on the importance of connectivity and universal, affordable access to the internet. Digital inclusion is a key enabler and a critical tool for the achievement of the other SDGs, as the GSMA - the body that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide - reports.
While the reach of the internet, mainly via mobile 3G+, has expanded significantly in recent years, there is still a “coverage gap” of over 800 million people who live in areas that are not covered by networks. At the end of 2018, 44% of the world’s uncovered population was in sub-Saharan Africa.
There is an even much bigger “usage gap” with more than 3.2 billion people living in areas covered by 3G+ networks but who are not using internet services. Less than one in four people in Africa access the internet today.
Therefore, three-quarters of the digital divide is not a coverage issue. The digital divide is far from being only a technology or connectivity issue.
But then what are the reasons?
The “usage gap” is a strong reminder of the social, cultural and generational divides in our societies.
1. Affordability. The cost of handsets, energy and data are still too high for some populations. While low-cost solutions are improving for handsets as they are for solar-energy kits and networks, further collaboration by all stakeholders and governments remains essential to lower barriers and facilitate access for all.
2. Lack of digital skills and literacy. The top barrier to mobile internet use in low- and middle-income countries as well as a key issue in developed countries. The remaining unconnected population is disproportionately illiterate or has low levels of literacy. The digital transformation of our societies brings more opportunities for the connected, but makes digital illiteracy the new frontier of inclusion.
3. The lack of content in local languages represents a major issue outside of the US, EU and China. Content and services must be relevant to citizens and meet their needs.
Closing the “coverage gap” for the last 800 million is also, above all, an economic challenge. Areas without coverage are typically rural zones with low population densities, low per-capita income levels, and less developed or non-existent infrastructure. It can cost up to twice as much to deploy new base stations in rural areas, while revenue expectations can be up to 10 times less than in the urban equivalent. Telecom operators are working to cover most of these areas in efficient ways, to expand the reach of commercially sustainable networks as much as possible by driving down deployment costs through further technical innovation in key areas such as power, backhaul and low-cost base station technologies. New network models are arising in Africa, in India, in Mexico, but full coverage could yet take decades.
The internet access issue goes beyond the parameters of normal business, and different stakeholders have been working on it for some years. Many initiatives, such as the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the Digital Economy TaskForce (a joint EU and African Union initiative), have all done a lot to boost the importance of broadband on the international policy agenda, and to encourage the public and private sector as well as civil society to work together on the basis of agreed recommendations on policies.
The World Bank initiatives to fund digital development, such as the Digital Development Partnership or recently “Moonshot for Africa”, have clear objectives to allocate significant financial funding to support the necessary partnerships and policies.
The World Economic Forum Internet For All global initiative has also quickly reached good momentum on the international scene, with the launch of the eponymous report. It continues to provide support to some country and regional partners (Argentina, Rwanda and South Africa), as well as Smart Africa and the Inter-American Development Bank, and is used to consider innovative delivery models, investment models, and policy and regulation issues.
On the other side, the Telecom Infra Project, with representatives from the internet, telecom, suppliers and integrators, is looking to build new technologies and develop innovative approaches for deploying telecom network infrastructure more cost-effectively, especially in remote and rural areas. These sit alongside initiatives like the GSMA Connected Society Innovation for Rural Connectivity.
These initiatives bring essential contributions for digital inclusion. However, it is now time to scale up and to accelerate because time is of the essence when you considering the widening gap that is at stake.
Large deployments are essential in areas that are today deemed as “beyond business”. These need the cooperation of governments and financial institutions with operators that provide local presence and large operational capacities. To achieve scale, profile and impact, it is important to these organizations to engage the mobile industry and its operational, locally deployed capacities in order to recognise, align with and leverage existing international initiatives focused on digital inclusion.
For these reasons in June 2019, I took the initiative as the chairman of GSMA to propose to step up the engagement with international initiatives. We decided to coordinate our activities through our collective foundations, which operate in very large number of countries in areas beyond usual business, and to create stronger partnership through the GSMA to bring our operational capacities for large-scale actions and accelerate progress towards universal digital inclusion. The mobile industry is well positioned to drive efforts to accelerate digital inclusion for all since connectivity lies at the heart of this ecosystem, and our industry has the potential to mobilise customers, retail networks and supplier relationships worldwide in the pursuit of this objective.
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To make network operations sustainable for the “last billion”, governmental support is necessary in the form of reducing policy and regulatory barriers to deployment, and by creating pro-investment environments. New sources of financing and models relying on international lenders should be considered, as well as private-public partnerships with clear objectives for better coverage as well as adapting existing Universal Service instruments based on best practices. These are the simple reasons why a large coalition with all the stakeholders is necessary.
The collective benefit that will emerge from a human web, enabling several billion people to use financial, education health and other public services, will be more than worth the investment and will be an powerful accelerator for most of the SDGs for 2030.