Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO

Yesterday, a new initiative was launched by Vodafone Group Plc and ITU, the United Nations’ specialised agency for information and communication technologies, to address the global digital divide, with the aim that an additional 3.4 billion people could have the ability to access and use the internet through a smartphone by 2030. 

Of the 3.7 billion people not connected to the internet, 3.4 billion live within range of mobile networks but are currently not accessing the internet, partly due to a lack of smartphone ownership.

With mobile broadband (4G) networks now covering 82% of the population of Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), the mobile usage gap is 6x larger than the mobile coverage gap. In line with the Broadband Commission Global Targets 2025 on affordability and connectivity, the new Working Group will identify policy, commercial and circular-economy interventions to increase smartphone access. 

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. 

Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group said: "We are aware of the many different socio-economic complexities and dynamics which continue to prevent universal digital access in modern society, which should be a right and not a privilege.

The pledge by the United Nations, Vodafone Group Plc and the ITU to increase smartphone access for 3.4 billion people around the world is timely and important. As Vodacom works to connect the next 100 million African people through its Africa.Connected campaign, we look forward to supporting Vodafone’s ambition to ensure that no one is excluded from the global digital economy, and may enjoy access to education, jobs, public and financial services."

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.

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.

Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group, said: "Vodafone is honoured to be part of this monumental global initiative with the UN, to improve the lives of billions of people through smartphone access. This is such a complex challenge that no network operator, device manufacturer, financial services provider or national government can solve on their own – but working together we can break through the barriers."

Houlin Zhao, Secretary General of the ITU, added: "Achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multi-stakeholder approach. I am pleased to co-chair this newly established Working Group, which will also help address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that we put smart devices in the hands of those who are left behind."

Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister for Communications and Digitalisation, Ghana also explained "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.”

The Broadband Commission 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 committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process. 

To coincide with the creation of the new Working Group, Vodafone, Vodacom and Safaricom have also published the second ‘Africa.Connected’ report  on accelerating 4G for sub-Saharan Africa. 

The report, by independent consultancy Caribou Digital, suggests a multi-stakeholder approach with four key steps to enhancing digital inclusion across African nations, where the mobile usage gap is the largest in the world.

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