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COVID-19 drives surge in mobile connectivity in Africa

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a rapid rise in mobile connectivity across the world and Africa.

In 2020, Africa saw a yearly increase in usage of mobile internet connection from 2014. An average of 3 percent increase annually was recorded.

Despite the growth in mobile internet connectivity, both in terms of mobile internet coverage and usage, more work needs to be done to bridge the usage gap (people within the footprint of a mobile network but who are not using the mobile internet), a new report from GSMA on mobile connectivity shows.

This digital divide refers to the 3.8 billion people from the world’s population who remain unconnected, as well as the 450 million people who do not live in areas with mobile broadband coverage- the coverage gap.

In Africa, 570 million people are not connected while 210 million people live in areas without mobile network coverage. Over 114 communities in Nigeria fall in this category.

The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2021 recently launched by Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), during Mobile World Congress (MWC) Africa stated that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the world’s population is now using the mobile internet.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic made clear the importance of mobile internet access to people’s lives and livelihoods and has accelerated the digital transformation around the world. Mobile is the primary and often the only way to access the internet in low- and middle-income countries. While more people than ever are now using the mobile internet, some fundamental barriers stop far too many people from using mobile internet. To close this usage gap, all of us, government and industry need to do more,” the GSMA’s Chief Regulatory Officer, John Giusti said.

Mobile internet usage translates to over 4 billion connected people, 225 million more in 2021 compared to 2019.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of mobile internet connectivity to the social and economic well-being of people around the world, the report says.

People with mobile internet access were able to stay connected with friends and family, conduct business, gain access to critical information and services, and ease the monotony of lockdown life.

Yet 47 percent of the population in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) is still not using the mobile internet despite living within mobile broadband network coverage.

“In particular, we must address the key barriers to usage of mobile internet services, most notably literacy and digital skills, as well as affordability. Only through targeted and collaborative action can we bridge the digital divide,” Giusti said.

Lack of awareness of mobile internet as well as its benefits, literacy, and digital skills make up the largest barrier to adoption. According to the GSMA’s report, about a quarter of adults across countries are not aware of mobile internet and its benefits.

Also, affordability poses a barrier. Internet-enabled handsets and data became less affordable in many LMICs in 2020 due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These barriers often affect specific segments of the population, especially people living in rural areas and women.

“In Africa, significant gender and rural-urban gaps persist. Women are 37 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men,” GSMA’s report noted.

A Collaborative Approach

The global climate challenge shows that mobile connectivity can be a lifeline for people during crises, re-emphasising the importance of doing more to improve access to mobile services.

The only way to close the digital divide is through a strong collective effort to address people’s barriers to accessing and using mobile internet. It requires targeted action by all stakeholders including mobile operators, policymakers, government and the broader private sector.

Although the mobile usage gap is narrowing, it is now seven times larger than the coverage gap.

In 2014, the usage gap accounted for 64 percent of the total unconnected population, and this figure grew to 88 percent by 2020 due to the increase in mobile broadband coverage.

Between 2019 and 2020, the most significant increase in mobile internet worldwide is in East Asia (61percent), which grew by 4 percent.

Presently, 94 percent of the world’s population has access to a broadband network, with most progress between 2014 and 2018. This has reduced the number of people living in areas without a mobile broadband network to 450 million while those who remain uncovered live in less populated rural areas with difficult terrain.

While in Africa, the affordability of mobile internet has improved substantially, it still remains a key barrier especially handset affordability.

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