Vodafone, ITU do a lot of talking on smartphone access

Vodafone is working with the ITU and a handful of other partners with a view to extending Internet access to 3.4 billion people by the end of the decade.

Mary Lennighan

September 20, 2021

3 Min Read
customer service

Vodafone is working with the ITU and a handful of other partners with a view to extending Internet access to 3.4 billion people by the end of the decade.

It’s a worthy ambition, but at this stage it’s really all just talk.

The mobile operator group said it and its partners “urge action” to connect the 3.4 billion people worldwide that live within range of mobile networks but do not currently access the Internet. At this stage ‘action’ appears to mean produce a couple of reports on the situation, but there could be more to come.

The problem, according to Vodafone, is the lack of smartphone ownership, the implication being that affordability is an issue, although its announcement does not say that in so many words. As one might expect from this sort of scheme, we have a lot of carefully chosen words that don’t articulate the problem with any great clarity or spell out any firm solutions.

What we do know is that Vodafone and the ITU will co-chair a new working group to “identify policy, commercial and circular-economy interventions to increase smartphone access.” Vodafone Group CEO, Nick Read, and ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao will serve as co-chairs. The firms will be joined by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the GSMA, the government of Ghana, Safaricom, Smart Africa, Vodacom Group, and the World Wide Web Foundation.

The working group’s mandate will be to produce a report and set of concrete recommendations, including an original analysis and data on the smartphone access gap; data quantifying the social and economic impact of providing everyone with smartphone access by 2030, including looking at moving users from 2G feature phones to 4G smartphones; and an analysis of initiatives or pilot projects to increase smartphone access. On that last point, Vodafone has committed to launching two pilot projects on device affordability as part of the process. That sounds like some concrete action, but we have no more details at this stage.

“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,” said Nick Read, having made the usual comments about improving people’s lives through smartphone access.

“Achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multi-stakeholder approach,” added Houlin Zhao, referring to the set of 2025 targets laid out by the ITU at Davis almost four years ago, which centre on the provision of affordable broadband in developing countries, digital skills, financial services, and the like.

“I am pleased to co-chair this newly established Working Group, which will also help address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that we put smart devices in the hands of those who are left behind,” he said.

The pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Billions of people in low and middle-income countries continue to use feature phones without Internet connections, and that 2G market is still growing, the parties point out.

“That means the digital divide is widening as the global pandemic has accelerated the emergence of digital societies, and smartphones are increasingly an essential gateway to access public services –

including education and medical support – financial services, jobs and to run businesses,” the companies point out.

Clearly, a broadening digital divide is the antithesis of what this industry has been working towards almost since its inception. ‘Something’ must be done. Vodafone, the ITU and others are keen to shout about their involvement in this ‘something,’ but they don’t quite know what it is yet.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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