Vodafone, ITU lead initiative to bridge smartphone gap and connect 3.4B people

4G phone
Rather than coverage, the new initiative aims to tackle 4G smartphone affordability and access. (Getty Images)

A new initiative launched and co-chaired by Vodafone Group and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) wants to make 4G smartphones more affordable and accessible to billions of people to help address a global gap where mobile network coverage outpaces the ability to use broadband. 

The multi-stakeholder effort is targeting 3.4 billion people it says could be able to access broadband through a smartphone by 2030. Out of the 3.7 billion people not connected to the internet, that’s how many currently live within range of mobile networks but don’t use the internet, according to ITU (PDF).  

A focus is on Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMIC), where billions of people use less expensive feature phones that support basic functions but don’t support data or internet connections. However, 4G networks cover 82% of LMICs’ populations, so the gap in mobile usage is 6x larger than the coverage gap, according to the GSMA. It’s also particularly important in LMICs where the large majority of internet connections (86%) are made via mobile technology.  

The government of Ghana is one of the program’s launch partners.

“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,” said Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister for Communications and Digitalization, in a statement. “Addressing the mobile internet usage gap is vital for the long-term economic development of my country and many others across the world and will require new partnerships and focused action from a range of organizations.”

RELATED: Satellite majors SpaceX, Kuiper, OneWeb head to India to close digital divide

As part of the process Vodafone is committing to launch to pilot programs on affordable devices. Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read, co-chair of the working group, highlighted the aim of the large global initiative to improve people’s lives with access to smartphones.

“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,” Read said in a statement. “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.”

The Broadband Commission Working Group plans to deliver a report and set of specific recommendations that include: analysis and data on the smartphone access gap; quantifying the social and economic impact of providing everyone access to smartphones by 2030; and analyzing pilots or programs to increase smartphone access.

RELATED: How can wireless help close the U.S. digital divide?

Alongside the new working group, partners published a report (PDF) that included steps to enhance 4G in sub-Saharan Africa, including lowering tax on 4G smartphone imports, increasing local device manufacturing and expanding device financing to make it easier to get 4G devices. It also recommended refarming 2G spectrum for 4G.

Vodafone’s Read and ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao are co-chairs of the dedicated working group created under the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. Other launch partners include the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the GSMA, the government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group, and the World Wide Web Foundation.