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Vodafone, ITU aim to bridge global smartphone digital divide

First multi-stakeholder initiative to address global mobile internet access gap has been launched by operator and global comms body

Vodafone Group and ITU, the United Nations’ specialised agency for information and communication technologies, have launched a major initiative to address what they believe is a global divide in mobile communications. They aim to enable 3.4 billion people to access and use the internet via a smartphone by 2030.

The organisations say that of the 3.7 billion people not connected to the internet, just 300 million fewer live within range of mobile networks but are currently not accessing the internet, partly because of a lack of smartphone ownership. They says that with mobile broadband (4G) networks now covering 82% of the population of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the mobile usage gap is six times larger than the mobile coverage gap, quoting research from global mobile trade association the GSMA.

Further research by the same organisation has found that mobile accounts for 86% of connections to the internet in LMICs, emphasising the importance of mobile in addressing this issue.

Yet Vodafone and the ITU believe billions of people continue to use “dumb” feature phones without an internet connection, and the 2G market continues to grow. That means the digital divide is widening as the global pandemic has accelerated the emergence of digital societies and smartphones are increasingly an essential gateway to access public services – including education and medical support – financial services, jobs and to run businesses.

This is based on the GSMA’s 2020 study Mobile industry impact report: sustainable development goals, which showed that 1.6 billion people globally are now using the internet to improve or monitor their health, 2.3 billion use mobile financial services, and 2 billion use the internet to access education for themselves or their children.

In the new initiative, Vodafone and the ITU will act as co-chairs via a dedicated working group under the auspices of the ITU/Unesco Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. This will act in line with the Broadband Commission Global Targets 2025 on affordability and connectivity, and the working group will identify policy, commercial and circular-economy interventions to increase smartphone access.

Co-chaired by Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read and ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao, the group’s launch partners also include the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the GSMA, the government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group and the World Wide Web Foundation.

The Broadband Commission Working Group will produce a report and set of concrete recommendations, including: original analysis and data on the smartphone access gap; quantification of the social and economic impact of providing everyone with smartphone access by 2030, including assessment of moving users from 2G feature phones to 4G smartphones; and analysis of initiatives or pilots designed to increase smartphone access.

Vodafone Group has committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.

Read said: “Vodafone is honoured to be part of this monumental global initiative with the UN to improve the lives of billions of people through smartphone access. As our societies become more digital, everyone should have the ability to find jobs, be able to get public services, financial services and critical information that are increasingly only available through the internet.

“This is such a complex challenge that no network operator, device manufacturer, financial services provider or national government can solve on their own – but working together, we can break through the barriers.”

Zhao added: “Achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multi-stakeholder approach. I am pleased to co-chair this newly established working group, which will also help address the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure that we put smart devices into the hands of those who are left behind.”

To coincide with the creation of the working group, Vodafone, Vodacom and Safaricom have published the second Africa.connected report on accelerating 4G for sub-Saharan Africa. The report, by independent consultancy Caribou Digital, suggests a multi-stakeholder approach, with four key steps to enhancing digital inclusion across African nations, where the mobile usage gap is the largest in the world: make 4G devices more accessible, invest in the demand for 4G services, provide targeted financing for underserved demographics, and re-farm 2G spectrum.

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