How to improve digital inclusion with the power of mobile connectivity

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mats Granryd, Director-General, GSMA


  • Of the 3.8 billion people around the world who remain unconnected to mobile internet, 88% live in an area already covered by mobile broadband but do not use mobile internet services. Those who are unconnected are more likely to be poorer, less educated, older, rural and women.
  • Large public-private initiatives, which are based on an understanding of the local context, needs and barriers of the unconnected, are the best way to tackle the usage gap.
  • Whole-of-government approaches are necessary to address the complex barriers of affordability, literacy and digital skills, safety and security, relevance and accessibility.

The last two years have altered the world, and the lens through which we view it, utterly. And through all the change, mobile connectivity provided a steadying hand, for families, businesses and whole economies.

An era of meaningful connectivity

Today, more people are connected and more industries are interconnected through mobile, as we have moved from an era of simple connectivity to one of meaningful connectivity. Mobile network data traffic grew by 42% between Q3 2020 and Q3 2021 and, as we emerge from the pandemic, digitization is being fast tracked across all sectors.

Meaningful connectivity implies shared human progress – a better future for us all – which can be achieved through digital inclusion and ensuring people are able to use the internet to meet their needs. I believe that tech innovation is best used to deliver inclusion and prosperity, on a platform that is accessible, fair and safe for all.

Tackling the coverage and usage gaps in mobile broadband

Today, just over half of the world’s people are connected to mobile internet, but half are not. The 3.8 billion people that are not connected is made up of 450 million people who live outside areas covered by mobile broadband, which is the coverage gap. The 3.4 billion people who live in areas covered by mobile broadband, but who do not yet use mobile internet represent the usage gap.

Evolution of global coverage and usage of mobile internet Image: GSMA

To date, the coverage gap has been tackled by mobile operator investment in infrastructure, and in the last 5 years, 1.4 billion more people have been covered by mobile broadband. This is very good news, as research shows that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration leads to growth of 1.5% in gross domestic product. Importantly, today more than 160 countries have a national broadband strategy.

digital, COVID-19, EDISON Alliance

EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

COVID-19 has exposed digital inequities globally and exacerbated the digital divide. Most of the world lives in areas covered by a mobile broadband network, yet more than one-third (2.9 billion people) are still offline. Cost, not coverage, is the barrier to connectivity.

At The Davos Agenda 2021, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-sector alliance to accelerate digital inclusion and connect critical sectors of the economy.

Through the 1 Billion Lives Challenge, the EDISON Alliance aims to improve 1 billion lives globally through affordable and accessible digital solutions across healthcare, financial services and education by 2025.

Read more about the EDISON Alliance’s work in our Impact Story.

The bigger number, and the much bigger challenge, is the usage gap of 3.4 billion people, which highlights that a narrow focus on infrastructure will be insufficient to tackle the digital divide. Those who are unconnected are more likely to be poorer, less educated, older, rural and women. For instance, women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are 15% less likely to use mobile internet than men, which means that there are 234 million fewer women than men using mobile Internet.

Taking down the barriers through public-private joint efforts

Targeted, informed action is required that addresses the needs of the unconnected and the barriers they face to accessing and using the internet. Key barriers include affordability, particularly of handsets; literacy and digital skills; relevant content and services; safety and security concerns; and accessibility. Strategies also need to factor in the structural issues underpinning disparities in adoption and use, such as differences in income and education, and restrictive social norms.

Given the magnitude of the lag in usage, collaborative long-term partnerships between public and private sectors are the only way to drive usage.

Digital skills initiatives are paramount

Coordinated efforts to stimulate demand are required. Private sector investment in mobile broadband infrastructure will be sustainable if there is a market to drive the demand. Public policies have a key role to play, such as building digital skills, enabling the creation of relevant content, and reducing taxes on smartphones. In LMICs, national regulatory reforms and regional coordination to ease uncertainty can go a long way to support mobile operators and make investment less risky.

Public-private initiatives such as for example those driven by the Broadband Commission, the EDISON Alliance, are essential to facilitate international dialogue and to accelerate impact. We need to ensure that consensus at the highest level is met with equally high ambition and results locally.

And of course, improving digital inclusion requires a whole-of-government approach. It can no longer be the sole focus of the ICT Minister. The government challenge is complex, and paramount are digital skills initiatives realized in partnership with local stakeholders and the private sector.

“Addressing the connectivity gaps in mobile internet is essential for any country’s development, especially as societies transition to a post-pandemic digital era. GSMA is a key Champion of the EDISON Alliance, recommending strategies and helping shape policies that are making mobile internet more inclusive and meaningful – ensuring we don’t leave anyone behind,” said Rima Qureshi, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Verizon & Deputy Chair of GSMA Board.

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