GSMA - MWC 2023

Global mobile internet growth stalls

Global mobile trade association’s sixth annual global industry round-up reveals smartphone owners are now the global majority, but mobile internet usage is stalling around the world as a digital divide persists

Research from the GSMA has shown that while over half (54%) of the global population – some 4.3 billion people – now owns a smartphone, and 200 million people began using mobile internet in 2022, 57% of the global population remain unconnected – and the growth rate at which people are adopting mobile internet has slowed, falling from 300 million in 2021 and 2020.

The state of mobile internet connectivity report 2023 (SOMIC), published by the global trades association for the mobile industry, included several first-time pieces of global and regional analysis, including the number of unique smartphone users and analysis by device type.

The research revealed that smartphone owners were much more likely to be aware of, and adopt, mobile internet services, as well as use it more frequently and for a wider variety of tasks. Of the 4.6 billion people now using mobile internet, almost four billion were found to do so using a smartphone, representing just under half (49%) of the world’s population. Meanwhile, 600 million people – 8% of the global population – are accessing the internet using a feature phone.

A breakdown of mobile internet connections by device type revealed significant regional variations. The global expansion of 4G and 5G networks was seen to have paved the way for over two-thirds (69%) of smartphone owners accessing mobile broadband to do so on a 4G-enabled device, while 17% used a 5G-enabled device. The latter was driven largely by mature markets such as North America and East Asia and Pacific. By contrast, 69% of smartphones used to access mobile internet in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 33% in the Middle East and North Africa, were still only 3G-capable, meaning 2G and 3G networks remain an important source of coverage for millions of users in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

While there have been notable achievements and mobile internet adoption continues to grow, the report showed progress is slowing, and that increased action is required to ensure everybody can access mobile internet.

Looking at the mobile internet usage gap and the digital divide, the survey discovered that the majority of those who are not using mobile internet live in areas covered by a mobile broadband network. This usage gap was down slightly from 40% of the global population in 2021 to 38% in 2022 – representing three billion people – but remains substantial. Only 5% of those not using mobile internet live in areas without mobile broadband coverage, that is to say the coverage gap.

Regional discrepancies and a digital divide were also revealed by the study. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia represented the regions with the least connected populations and where the usage gaps were 59% and 52% respectively. In addition, the report revealed that two-thirds of the individuals who live within areas covered by a mobile broadband network but who were not using mobile internet do not own a mobile phone, highlighting the importance of tackling issues such as handset affordability. Even where people did own smartphones, many were still unable to use them due to barriers such as digital skills and literacy, safety and security concerns, accessibility of enablers or services, and the availability of relevant content in local languages.

Read more about mobile internet

The remaining third of the usage gap, representing 950 million people, consisted of users who own or had access to a smartphone (350 million), basic or feature phone (600 million), but were only using basic services such as voice or SMS.

The GSMA noted that smartphone owners should, in theory, face fewer barriers to accessing the internet, given they already have a device. Only 25% of the population in the world’s least developed countries were using mobile internet, compared with 52% across LMICs and 85% across high-income countries.

The study also found that mobile broadband coverage has remained relatively unchanged, with 95% of the global population living within the footprint of a mobile broadband network. The remainder still not covered by mobile broadband represented almost 400 million people. For the first time, all regions now have average download speeds of at least 10Mbps, while the global average download speed increased from 27Mbps to 34Mbps.

After assessing the trends revealed in the report, the GSMA called on a greater collaborative effort from all stakeholders – including government, policymakers and the mobile ecosystem – to break the barriers to the digital divide, provide coverage for those living in areas without mobile broadband and overcome barriers to usage. It added that actions must be informed by an understanding of the usage gap, the needs of individuals not yet using mobile internet, the barriers they face, and the opportunities to address them.

“Mobile is the primary – and, in most cases, only – way that most people in low- and middle-income countries access the internet,” said GSMA director general Mats Granryd. “The fact that the growth rate at which people are adopting mobile internet has slowed is worrying.

“Lack of connectivity will deprive billions of people of access to vital services and revenue-generating opportunities – likely impacting poorer, less educated, rural and female users disproportionately. As the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and rise in climate-related emergencies affects these groups further, there is an urgent need to accelerate digital inclusion and break down the barriers to stop the digital divide from widening further.”

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

Data Center
Data Management