September 30, 2021
The Global 2021 State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report from the mobile industry trade body, the GSMA, shows that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the world’s population now uses mobile internet. Mobile Internet use translates into just over 4 billion people connected, 225 million more than in 2019, up 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 must accelerate to bridge the digital divide. Of the 3.8 billion people who are still not connected, only 450 million people do not live in areas covered by mobile broadband (the coverage gap). The coverage gap represents a significant improvement year on year.
The much bigger challenge is the 3.4 billion people who live in areas that already have mobile broadband coverage, but do not use it (the usage gap).
The report examines trends in mobile Internet coverage and use over the past six years and identifies the main barriers to mobile Internet adoption. It also examines the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the most significant regional effects. Finally, it makes recommendations to help bridge the digital divide and ensure better access to mobile Internet connectivity.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly highlighted the importance of mobile Internet access for people’s lives and livelihoods and has accelerated the digital transformation in the world,” notes the director of the GSMA Regulator, John Giusti. âMobile is the primary and often the only means of accessing the Internet in low- and middle-income countries. As more people use mobile internet today than ever before, there are some fundamental barriers that prevent too many people from using mobile internet. To close this usage gap, all of us – government and industry – need to do more. In particular, we need to remove the main barriers to the use of mobile internet services, including literacy and digital skills, as well as affordability. It is only through targeted and collaborative action that we can bridge the digital divide.
Over the past six years, the coverage gap has steadily narrowed:
- In 2014, nearly a quarter of the world’s population did not have access to a mobile broadband network.
- At the end of 2020, that figure was only 6%.
- Today, 94% of the world’s population has access to a broadband network, with most of the progress 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 a mobile broadband network to 450 million. Those who stay 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 year in a row:
- However, the difference in use remains significant and represents the majority of the unconnected.
- In 2020, 3.4 billion people (43% of the world’s population) lived within the footprint of a mobile broadband network but did not access mobile internet services.
- Although the usage gap is narrowing, it is now seven times greater than the coverage gap.
- In 2014, the usage gap represented 64% of the total unconnected population – this figure rose to 88% in 2020 due to the increase in mobile broadband coverage.
- Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) now represent nearly 93% of the world’s unconnected population and over 98% of the unconnected population.
- Between 2019 and 2020, the most significant increase in mobile internet use is in East Asia (61%), which increased by 4%.
Barriers to using mobile internet
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 essential information and services, and otherwise ease the monotony of lockdown life. Yet 47 percent of the LMIC population still do not use mobile internet despite living within mobile broadband network coverage.
The main obstacles include:
- The biggest barrier to adoption is the lack of awareness of mobile internet and its benefits, literacy and digital skills. Almost a quarter of adults in the countries surveyed by the report are unfamiliar with mobile internet and its benefits.
- Affordability: Internet-enabled phones 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, especially 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 to make a strong collective effort to overcome the barriers people face in accessing and using the mobile Internet. This requires targeted action from 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 & Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).