More than half of the world’s population now uses mobile internet, Access Evolution

Kigali: Today at MWC Africa, the GSMA launched its 2021 Global State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report showing that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the world’s population uses now the mobile Internet. Mobile internet usage translates to just over 4 billion people connected, 225 million more than in 2019, and an increase from a third of the world’s population just six years ago.

Even with this impressive growth in mobile internet connectivity, both in terms of mobile internet coverage and usage, the report stresses that work needs to accelerate to bridge the digital divide. Of the 3.8 billion people who are still unconnected, only 450 million people do not live in areas with mobile broadband coverage (“the coverage gap”). The coverage gap represents a significant improvement year on year.

The much bigger challenge is for the 3.4 billion people who live in areas that already have mobile broadband coverage, but are not using it (“the usage gap”).

The report examines trends in mobile internet coverage and usage over the past six years and identifies key barriers to mobile internet adoption. It also examines the first impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the most important regional effects. Finally, it makes recommendations to help reduce the digital divide and ensure better access to mobile Internet connectivity.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of mobile internet access to people’s lives and livelihoods and has accelerated digital transformation around the world. Mobile is the primary and often the only way to access the Internet in low- and middle-income countries. While more people than ever are using mobile internet, there are fundamental barriers preventing far too many people from using mobile internet. To close this usage gap, all of us – government and industry – need to do more,” said GSMA Chief Regulatory Officer John Giusti. “In particular, we need to address key barriers to using mobile internet services, including digital literacy and skills, and affordability. Only through focused and collaborative action can we bridge the digital divide.

The gap in mobile internet coverage and usage is narrowing

Over the past six years, the coverage gap has steadily narrowed:

  • In 2014, almost a quarter of the world’s population did not have access to a mobile broadband network.
  • At the end of 2020, this figure was only 6%.
  • Today, 94% of the world’s population has access to a broadband network, with most progress having been made between 2014 and 2018.
  • In 2020, global coverage increased by one percentage point, from 93% to 94%. This reduced the number of people living in areas without mobile broadband to 450 million. Those that remain in the open generally live in sparsely populated rural areas with difficult terrain.

The number of people using mobile internet also increased for the second consecutive year:

  • However, the usage gap remains significant and accounts for the majority of unconnected people.
  • In 2020, 3.4 billion people (43% of the world’s population) lived within the footprint of a mobile broadband network but did not have access to mobile internet services.
  • Although the utilization gap is narrowing, it is now seven times larger than the coverage gap.
  • In 2014, the usage gap represented 64% of the total unconnected population – this figure has increased to 88% by 2020 due to increased mobile broadband coverage.
  • Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) now account for nearly 93% of the global unconnected population and over 98% of the uncovered population.
  • Between 2019 and 2020, the largest increase in mobile internet usage is in East Asia (61%), which grew by 4%.

Barriers to mobile internet use

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of mobile internet connectivity for the social and economic well-being of people around the world. People with mobile internet access have been able to stay in touch with friends and family, conduct business, access critical information and services, and otherwise ease the monotony of life in lockdown. However, 47% of the population of LMICs still do not use mobile internet despite living within mobile broadband network coverage.

The main barriers include:

  • Lack of awareness of mobile internet and its benefits, digital literacy and skills are the biggest barriers to adoption. Nearly a quarter of adults in the countries surveyed in the report are unaware of mobile internet and its benefits.
  • Affordability: Internet-connected handsets and data have become less affordable in many LMICs in 2020 due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These barriers often disproportionately affect specific segments of the population, particularly people living in rural areas and women.

A collaborative approach

The Global Climate Challenge shows that mobile connectivity can be a lifeline for people during crises, again highlighting the importance of doing more to improve access to mobile services. The only way to bridge the digital divide is through a strong collective effort to overcome barriers to mobile internet access and use. This requires targeted action by all stakeholders, including mobile operators, policy makers, government and the wider private sector.

This report is the result of a project funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The views expressed are not necessarily those of either organization.

The GSMA 2021 Mobile Internet Connectivity Status is available at: www.gsma.com/somic

Further information on the GSMA Connected Society program can be found at: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/connected-society/

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