In a significant stride towards global connectivity, 57% of the world’s population, totaling 4.6 billion individuals, are now active users of mobile internet, finds The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2023 by GSMA. However, the pace of adoption witnessed a slowdown in 2022, with only 200 million new users, compared to 300 million in the preceding year.
Over three-quarters of the growth in mobile internet adoption in 2022 came from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), home to 95% of the unconnected population. Within the least developed countries (LDCs), nearly 30 million additional individuals embraced mobile internet.
Internet coverage and usage gaps
Mobile broadband coverage, however, has remained largely consistent, covering 95% of the global population. However, a substantial proportion of non-users reside in areas covered by mobile broadband. In 2022, 3 billion individuals, equivalent to 38% of the global population, lived in areas with mobile internet coverage but chose not to utilize it. Despite a gradual reduction in this usage gap from 40% in 2021 to 38% in 2022, it remains nearly eight times larger than the coverage gap.
Connectivity disparities exist both between and within regions and countries, with 95% of the unconnected population residing in LMICs. Sub-Saharan Africa emerges as the region grappling with the most extensive coverage and usage gaps.
In LMICs, adults living in rural areas are 29% less likely to utilize mobile internet compared to their urban counterparts, while women are 19% less inclined to do so than men. In LDCs, only a quarter of the population currently accesses mobile internet, a stark contrast to the 52% across all LMICs and the 85% in high-income countries (HICs).
Most of the global population now possess a smartphone, serving as the primary gateway to mobile internet access. By the end of 2022, 4.3 billion people, representing 54% of the global population, owned a smartphone. Of the 4.6 billion mobile internet users, nearly 4 billion access it through a smartphone (49% of the global population), while around 600 million employ feature phones (8% of the global population).
Additionally, 350 million individuals own a smartphone but opt not to use mobile internet.
Factors affecting the adoption of mobile internet
Affordability and digital literacy remain the primary challenges for mobile internet adoption. In surveyed countries, individuals aware of mobile internet but not using it cited cost, particularly of handsets, and digital literacy as the most common barriers. Safety and security concerns, as well as perceived relevance, were reported less frequently but are still significant obstacles.
The financial accessibility of devices and data disproportionately impacts underserved communities. While the affordability of an entry-level, internet-enabled handset remains relatively steady across LMICs, data costs have seen improvement in most regions. Nevertheless, for the entire LMIC population, the expense of such a device accounts for 16% of their average monthly income.
How to address the digital disparity
Enhance Digital Literacy and Skills: Enhancing digital skills and literacy is crucial for promoting digital inclusion. Initiatives should be tailored to users’ specific needs and circumstances.
Develop Strategies for Affordable Internet Access: Efforts to improve affordability should encompass strategies to reduce the costs of internet-enabled devices and data. This can be achieved through innovative pricing models and handset financing options. Additionally, tax policies and targeted subsidies can play a role in encouraging the adoption of internet-enabled devices and data services.
Address Safety and Security Concerns: Addressing concerns related to safety and security, including issues like online harassment, cyberbullying, misinformation, disinformation, and fraud, is essential to creating a positive online experience. Establishing appropriate mechanisms and frameworks that acknowledge these online risks can help build consumer trust.
Investing in Local Digital Ecosystems: Investing in these ecosystems and establishing an enabling policy environment can stimulate the growth of local content, services, and applications that cater to the specific needs of the population, delivered in their own language.
Provide Access to Internet Adoption Enablers: Access to enablers such as electricity, formal identification, sales agents, and accessibility features is crucial for utilizing the internet. Stakeholders can promote mobile internet adoption by facilitating inclusive and transparent registration processes for mobile services. Making services, sales channels, and training facilities accessible to underserved groups can enhance internet adoption.
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