Research: Wide mobile Internet coverage and usage gap

Ensuring people can use mobile internet, rather than just focusing on network coverage, is key to driving digital inclusion for 3.2 billion people worldwide, according to statistics released by the mobile industry association, GSMA.

The organization’s yearbook Mobile Internet connection status report shows that 95 percent of the world’s population now lives in areas covered by mobile broadband connectivity and that 55 percent of the world’s population is now connected to mobile internet thanks to this coverage. Covering the remaining 5 percent (the “coverage gap”) remains a major challenge.

The bigger problem, however, is the 3.2 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, who are served by a mobile broadband network but face barriers that prevent them from getting online (the “utilization gap”). These include:

  • A lack of literacy and digital skills
  • Affordability (particularly mobile phone affordability)
  • Access to Relevant Content and Services
  • Security Concerns and Access

The impact of these challenges is having far-reaching implications, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where mobile is the primary – and in many cases the only – form of internet access.

94% of the world’s “disconnected” population – who tend to be poor, live in rural areas and are women – live in LMICs. Lack of internet access is preventing them from playing an active role in an increasingly online world, making them less able to cope with the ongoing economic and social disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic Climate change, rising energy prices and the cost of being caused by -living crisis. These barriers also prevent them from accessing important information and services such as health care, education, e-commerce, financial services and income opportunities.

“More than 55 percent of the world’s people are now benefiting from the transformative power of mobile internet connectivity,” notes Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “Mobile operators around the world have now expanded cellular coverage to 95 percent of the world’s population and continue to invest every day to expand that footprint. We should celebrate this success, but we should not be blinded by the even greater challenge.”

“It’s time to make real strides in reaching the 3.2 billion people who still don’t use mobile internet despite living within reach of mobile broadband networks. We call on governments and organizations worldwide to work with the mobile industry and make digital inclusion a real priority. Removing barriers to mobile internet adoption will spur economic recovery, improve social mobility and gender equality, and transform the lives of millions of people worldwide.”

Important trends

While the report highlighted the importance of an increased focus on addressing the “utilization gap,” it also revealed a number of key trends:

  • Mobile Internet usage continues to grow, driving digital inclusion. At the end of 2021, 4.3 billion people were using mobile internet, or 55 percent of the world’s population, up from 43 percent in 2017
  • Almost 300 million people were online last year. Most of the people who started using mobile internet in 2021 came from LMICs, where 94 percent of the disconnected population lives. As a result, for the first time, half of the LMICs population is now using mobile internet.
  • Globally, the coverage gap has narrowed significantly over the past seven years. The proportion of people outside the reach of mobile broadband networks has fallen from 19 percent in 2015 to 5 percent by the end of 2021. But no need to be complacent: 400 million people worldwide still do not live in an area covered by mobile broadband, and progress has slowed since 2018.

While important advances have been made in increasing internet adoption and use, the report, funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), through the GSMA Mobile for Development Foundation, shows that growth has been uneven and there is a growing digital divide between and within countries. She concludes that strong collective efforts are needed to close the digital divide. This requires informed, targeted action from all stakeholders, including mobile operators, policymakers, international partners and the broader private sector, to address the needs of the disconnected and the barriers they face in accessing and using the internet.