Last month’s UN General Assembly session was unlike any other since the organisation was founded 75 years ago. In the first ever ‘virtual session’, world leaders stayed at home and delivered pre-recorded speeches to a mostly empty UN General Assembly hall. Nevertheless, despite the quiet corridors, there was a full programme. What’s more, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remained at the top of the agenda.

At the start of the year, the UN Secretary-General launched a “Decade of Action”. While significant progress had been made since the SDGs were agreed by world leaders in 2015, it was recognised by governments and the international community that the world was not on track to achieve the Goals by 2030. The reduction in poverty was slowing down, the number of people suffering from hunger was on the rise, climate change was occurring much faster than anticipated and inequality continued to increase within and among countries.

The Covid-19 pandemic subsequently unleashed an economic and human development crisis. In addition to causing more than 1 million deaths, the economic and social impacts have been devastating. In the short term, global GDP is expected to fall by 4.9 per cent in 2020 – the largest contraction since the Great Depression – and over 90 per cent of the world’s student population were at some point unable to attend school. The UN expects that more than 70 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty by the end of the year, the first increase in global poverty in more than two decades.

Mobile technology and sustainable development
In these unprecedented times, the GSMA recently published its fifth annual Mobile Industry SDG Impact Report, which shows that 2019 was the mobile industry’s most impactful year in terms of its contribution to the SDGs. Many people will be familiar with the connectivity figures highlighted in the report: 5.1 billion individuals (two thirds of the world’s population) using a mobile phone and 3.8 billion people (almost half the global population) using mobile internet. What is perhaps less well known is what people are using their phones for.

Some of the most popular activities will come as no surprise, namely instant messaging, social networking, reading the news and watching online videos. But in recent years, there has been a notable increase in the use of other services (see chart left, click to enlarge). More than 2 billion people have now used mobile financial services, purchased goods online and accessed educational information for themselves or their children. More than 1.5 billion people have used their device to improve or monitor their health, or to look and apply for a job.

The benefits of getting people online and enabling these types of services are clear.

Since 2015, the increase in mobile adoption has driven an increase in global GDP of $360 billion (4 per cent of economic growth), as well as providing employment for five million more people (the industry now supports 30 million jobs worldwide). Mobile technology drives a reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions that is 10 times greater than the carbon footprint of the industry. And a recent study by the GSMA and the World Bank shows that mobile technology can reduce poverty. At a more personal level, the majority of mobile owners believe that their device helps them in their day-to-day work and studies, and also makes them feel safer.

This trend in usage is likely to have intensified since the outbreak of Covid-19, as individuals have become more reliant on digital services to adhere to lockdown and physical distancing rules and lower the virus transmission rate. However, while connectivity has provided people with a lifeline during the past nine months, Covid-19 has also reinforced the impacts of the digital divide, with the unconnected – who tend to be poorer and have lower levels of education – less able to mitigate the economic and social disruptions to their lives. Without an acceleration of efforts to connect the unconnected and increase the use of life-enhancing – or in many cases life-saving – services, the world will not be able to meet the ambitious targets that have been set for the next ten years.

Connecting the next half
The goal of achieving universal internet access is therefore more important than ever. This will involve addressing two connectivity ‘gaps’ that are highlighted in the recently-published State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020 report: the ‘coverage gap’ (those living outside of areas covered by mobile broadband networks) and the ‘usage gap’ (those that live within reach of a network but are not using mobile internet).

The coverage gap now stands at just under 600 million (or 7 per cent of the global population), following continued network deployments in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The usage gap however stands at 3.4 billion people – six times larger than the coverage gap. There are many reasons for people not connecting and, encouragingly, there have been positive developments across several barriers to adoption. Adults in low- and middle-income countries are increasingly aware of mobile internet and the relevance it has to their lives. Affordability of both mobile devices and data continues to improve, particularly with the launch of new ‘smart feature phones’ priced at $10-20 and cheaper smartphones. Nevertheless, barriers around literacy and skills persist, affordability remains a significant challenge for the poorest in society and there are also increasing concerns around the safety and security of connecting.

Addressing all of these barriers will require a collective effort, and the measures that are needed extend not just to the mobile industry but also Governments, the local digital sector, global Internet companies, civil society and the international development community. The challenges of Covid-19 have led to more collaboration between these different players, which will need to continue over the next decade and beyond. Fortunately, there is now an opportunity to build on this cooperation by continuing to implement innovative and targeted initiatives that help to bridge the digital divide.

– Kalvin Bahia, Economist, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.