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Global initiative to give 3.4bn access to smartphones

By , ITWeb
Africa , 20 Sep 2021

An initiative has been launched by Vodafone Group and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), to address the global digital divide.

It aims to give an additional 3.4 billion people the ability to access and use the internet through a smartphone by 2030.

In a statement, Vodafone says with mobile broadband (4G) networks now covering 82% of the population of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the mobile usage gap is six times 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, the GSM Association, government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group and the World Wide Web Foundation.

Vodafone notes mobile accounts for 86% of connections to the internet in LMICs, emphasising the importance of mobile in addressing this issue. However, billions of people continue to use “dumb” feature phones, without an internet connection, and the 2G market continues to grow, it says.

Vital connectivity

The company explains this means the digital divide is widening, as the 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.

Read comments: “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. 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.

“This is such a complex challenge that no network operator, device manufacturer, financial services provider or national government can solve it on their own – but working together we can break through the barriers.”

Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom Group, says: “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 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 no one is excluded from the global digital economy, and may enjoy access to education, jobs, public and financial services.”

Zhao notes: “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 we put smart devices in the hands of those who are left behind.”

Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, officer-in-charge of the office of the United Nations secretary-general’s envoy on technology, says: “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 the shift to digital technology is beneficial and makes our societies more equal and not less.”

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.

Getting everyone online

Vodafone Group says it has committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.

“This partnership is key to expand access to the internet,” says Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

“I am confident that the outcome report will provide guidance to all our stakeholders as we prepare for the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in 2022 to build a world where no one is left offline.”

To coincide with the creation of the new working group, Vodafone, Vodacom and Safaricom today 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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