ITU/UNESCO report outlines measures to increase mobile internet access for the unconnected

The ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has ratified the first multi-stakeholder study aimed at creating practical tools and actions that could enable nearly 3bn more people to access and use the internet through a smartphone by 2030.

According to the ITU, around a third of the global population still cannot or do not access the internet. The adoption gap for mobile internet – which arises when individuals do not use the internet even when there is mobile network coverage in an area – is now over seven times larger than the coverage gap globally and is even larger in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, according to the GSMA.

A Broadband Commission Working Group on Smartphone Access was co-chaired by Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group, Houlin Zhao, Secretary General of the ITU and Heidi Schroderus-Fox and Rabab Fatima, UN High Representatives for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS). The Working Group also included representatives from the governments of Benin and Ghana.

The report, ‘Strategies Towards Universal Smartphone Access’, found that limited affordability and availability of smartphones, along with low consumer confidence, in part due to a lack of basic digital skills, are limiting internet adoption.

The report, which took a year to research and write, identifies three interventions that will have the most immediate impact on smartphone adoption:

  • Increased use by telecom operators of flexible device financing models
  • Reduced taxes and import duties
  • Improved distribution models to make smartphones more accessible to rural communities.

Alongside these measures, the report recommends further investigation into the use of device subsidies and the re-use of pre-owned smartphones.

The Broadband Commission will create taskforces to complete a five-point action plan resulting from its findings:

(i) initiate win-win partnerships with players across the digital value chain

(ii) improve recycling regulation and develop quality standards for pre-owned smartphones

(iii) develop strategies for recycling of mid- and low-tier devices

(iv) explore the use of Universal Service Funds and other government subsidies

(v) further explore the economic benefits of reducing tax and import duties on smartphones.

Vodafone Group CEO, Nick Read, said: “Access to the internet, and smartphones, are critical enablers of jobs, education, healthcare, financial services and much more. We need focused partnerships between business, government and civil society to drive smartphone adoption, through the five actions we have identified, to ensure we enable the transformative benefits of internet adoption for billions of people.”

Houlin Zhao, Secretary General of the ITU, added: “Thanks to the collaborative efforts of all members of the Working Group, this report moves the conversation forward by providing detailed case studies on initiatives implemented globally to address the challenges in providing affordable broadband and smartphone access. This report is just the first step. For the next phase, I would like to invite you to join us to implement the recommended initiatives and the five-point action plan to reduce the device gap for the underserved communities globally, as we move towards building a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable world.”

The Working Group also included representatives from: America Móvil; the government of Benin; the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN; the government of Ghana; the GSMA; the International Trade Centre; Intelsat; the International Science Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ITC); Millicom; Smart Africa; ZTE; and the World Wide Web Foundation. The lead author of the report was Professor Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. The report included research from the GSMA, ITU and 19 structured expert interviews, as well as insights from focus groups of entrepreneurs convened by the ITC, and extensive desk research.

The strategies for smartphone adoption build upon the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, which was launched earlier this year by the ITU, in close cooperation with the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology.

Partner2Connect is a multistakeholder alliance to foster meaningful connectivity and digital transformation globally, with a focus on (but not limited to) the hardest- to-connect communities. The coalition has so far had 428 pledges with an estimated financial value of $26.06bn (£23.5bn).