Vodafone and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are embarking on a "major new initiative" to address the global digital divide – with the aim to give an additional 3.4 billion people access to the Internet through a smartphone by 2030.
The two said in a statement that even though 4G networks now cover 82% of the population of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the mobile usage gap is still six-times larger than the mobile coverage gap.
That means that out of the 3.7 billion people not connected to the Internet globally, 3.4 billion live within range of mobile networks but are currently not accessing the Internet, partly due to a lack of smartphone ownership.
"Mobile accounts for 86% of connections to the Internet in LMICs, emphasising the importance of mobile in addressing this issue. Yet billions of people continue to use 'dumb' feature phones, without an Internet connection, and the 2G market continues to grow," Vodafone said in a statement.
"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," the telco added.
The initiative will start a new working group under the auspices of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. The working group will identify policy, commercial and circular-economy interventions to increase smartphone access in line with the Broadband Commission Global Targets 2025 on affordability and connectivity.
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, GSMA, the government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group, and the World Wide Web Foundation.
Read said the digital divide is such a complex challenge that no network operator, device manufacturer, financial services provider or national government can solve on their own – but he believes that working together "we can break through the barriers."
"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," he said.
Access for offline Africans is key to making the initiative work.
"While Ghana and other countries have made great strides in the development of mobile infrastructure and the usage of digital services such as mobile money, it is noticeable that 45% of people in West Africa are covered by mobile broadband networks but do not use the Internet," said Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, minister for communications and digitalisation in Ghana.
"Addressing the mobile Internet usage gap is vital for the long-term economic development of my country and many others across the world and will require new partnerships and focused action from a range of organisations," she said.
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The 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 also committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.
"The UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation aims to achieve universal connectivity by 2030. Smartphone access is a key element of this in low- and middle-income countries where mobile is the principal route to the Internet. As such, this working group can have an important role in ensuring that the shift to digital technology is beneficial and makes our societies more equal and not less," added Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, officer-in-charge of the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology.
— The Staff, Connecting Africa