GSMA to ITU-D: Addressing Barriers to Mobile Network Coverage in the Developing World

by Ms. Lauren Dawes, GSMA-UK    ldawes@gsma.com

Abstract:

  • While mobile broadband (3G or 4G) coverage in the developed world is ubiquitous, 800 million people are still not covered by mobile broadband networks. In rural areas the cost of building and operating mobile infrastructure can be twice as expensive compared to urban areas, with revenues up to 10 times smaller.
  • In addition, 3.2 billion people live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but are not using mobile internet services. A large scale consumer survey conducted by the GSMA revealed that affordability was the greatest barrier to using mobile internet services.
  • Both the private sector and public sector have important roles to play in improving the business case for mobile network coverage expansion.
  • By providing precise and granular data on mobile coverage, GSMA Mobile Coverage Maps can help operators determine the costs of providing mobile broadband services in uncovered areas and support the development of mobile networks.
  • For example, GSMA Coverage maps can help mobile operators assess the relevance of infrastructure sharing deals. Indeed, infrastructure sharing can help to lower the risk and costs of investments in network expansion. Regulators should seize this opportunity and ensure all forms of voluntary infrastructure sharing between operators are permitted.
  • GSMA Coverage Maps can also help other stakeholders – including governments, NGOs, and private companies that rely on mobile connectivity – to strategically target their activity, by helping them identify the locations with existing coverage.
  • In this context, policy-makers are encouraged to adopt policies that will support mobile operators’ efforts to provide affordable mobile internet services. This includes:
  1. Removing sector specific taxes which have an impact on the price of mobile devices and the costs of providing mobile internet services;
  2. Adopting pro-investment supply side policies in areas such as spectrum policy and planning;
  3. Providing open and non-discriminatory access to state-owned public infrastructures.

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Discussion:

Mobile is now the most common – and often the only way – that many people around the world access the internet, with 3.6 billion now subscribing to mobile internet services. However, while mobile broadband (3G or 4G) coverage in the developed world is ubiquitous, 800 million people are still not covered by mobile broadband networks. In rural areas the cost of building and operating mobile infrastructure can be twice as expensive compared to urban areas, with revenues up to 10 times smaller. As a result, mobile operators who expand their networks to rural areas often find that they lose money or take a long time to produce a return on investment. While seeking to grow their coverage (and hence their subscriber base) they can struggle to identify locations that could be economically viable.

In addition, 3.2 billion people live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but are not using mobile internet services – thus indicating that whilst coverage is a necessary criteria, it alone cannot address the problem of digital inclusion. A large scale consumer survey conducted by the GSMA[1] revealed that affordability was the greatest barrier to using mobile internet services, for people who were aware of mobile internet. In almost all the sample countries, the greatest barriers to mobile internet use are access to, and the cost of, internet-enabled handsets and data. These barriers are clearly interlinked, representing the importance of the overall cost of mobile internet access. The analysis also indicates that, although cost is an important consideration for both women and men in many of the surveyed countries, this barrier disproportionately affects women. For example, in Dominican Republic, 53% of female mobile users who do not use mobile internet, but are aware of it, cited handset cost as a key barrier to mobile internet use compared to 37% of men. In a similar sample in Kenya, 43% of women and 31% of men stated that not having access to an internet-enabled mobile phone was a major barrier to using mobile internet.

Both the private sector and public sector have important roles to play in improving the business case for mobile network coverage expansion.

Precise and granular data is key to help mobile operators, governments and others to determine the costs of providing mobile broadband services in uncovered areas and support the development of sustainable networks. In this context, the GSMA developed Mobile Coverage Maps[2]: a tool to help operators and others estimate the precise location and size of uncovered populations. These maps will allow users to:

  • Gain an accurate and complete picture of the mobile coverage in a given country by each generation of mobile technology (2G, 3G and 4G)
  • Estimate the population living in uncovered or underserved settlements with a very high level of granularity (e.g. small cities, villages or farms)
  • Search for uncovered settlements based on population size.

GSMA Mobile Coverage Maps are therefore a key tool to help operators improve the efficiency of their investments. For example, GSMA Coverage maps can help mobile operators assess the need for infrastructure sharing deals. Indeed, infrastructure sharing can help to lower the risk and costs of investments in network expansion. Regulators should seize this opportunity and ensure all forms of voluntary infrastructure sharing between operators are permitted. This is especially the case since the costs savings of such commercial arrangements can be significant, reducing capital investment and on-going operating costs by between 50% and 80% -depending on market structure and the sharing model – which can be reinvested in network expansion[3]. This helps to close the ‘coverage gap’ and encourage operators to venture into rural areas they might otherwise have not wanted or could not afford to go to.

GSMA Mobile Coverage Maps can also help other stakeholders – including governments, NGOs, and private companies that rely on mobile connectivity – to strategically target their activity, by helping them identify the locations with existing coverage.

In this context, it is critical for policy makers to adopt economic policies that will support mobile operators’ efforts to provide affordable services.

  • Mobile is the main gateway to the internet for consumers in many parts of the world today, particularly in developing countries. Despite this, governments in many of these countries are increasingly imposing – in addition to general taxes – sector-specific taxes on consumers of mobile services and devices and on mobile operators. This poses a significant risk to the growth of the services among citizens, limiting the widely acknowledged social and economic benefits associated with mobile technology. This latest report from GSMA Intelligence https://www.gsmaintelligence.com/research/?file=8f36cd1c58c0d619d9f165261a57f4a9&download examines mobile sector taxation over time and its impact on affordability and connectivity. The report highlights the taxes applied to mobile services and how certain taxes can raise the affordability barrier and reduce the ability of citizens to take part in digital society. It also explores the impact of uncertain tax regimes on operators’ ability to continue investing in new networks. The report shows how sector-specific taxes can create inefficiency, inequity and complexity, and hinder achievement of the UN Broadband Commission’s target for affordable broadband for all by 2025.
  • Effective pro-investment supply side policies should also be adopted in areas such as spectrum policy and planning to encourage long term investment in the sector and result in more affordable mobile internet services being made available to all.
  • Providing open and non-discriminatory access to state-owned public infrastructures such as public buildings, roads, railways and utility service ducts can also significantly reduce the costs of network roll-out and can be key to providing the site access and necessary backhaul capacity so critical to operator investments.

Notes:

[1] The analysis is based on findings from quantitative face-to-face surveys with women and men in 23 low- and middle-income countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Source: Gender Gap Report 2018. GSMA (2019). Available here: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/GSMA_The_Mobile_Gender_Gap_Report_2018_32pp_WEBv7.pdf

[2] GSMA Mobile Coverage Maps use data collected directly from mobile operators and overlay it with the High Resolution Settlement Layer, a dataset developed by Facebook Connectivity Lab and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University. This data estimates human population distribution at a hyperlocal level, based on census data and high-resolution satellite imagery. We have further enriched this data by adding socioeconomic indicators and key buildings such as schools, hospitals, and medical centres. The Mobile Coverage Maps are accessible here: www.mobilecoveragemaps.com

[3] Unlocking rural coverage: Enablers for commercially sustainable mobile network expansion. GSMA (2016). Available here: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Unlocking-Rural-Coverage-enablers-for-commercially-sustainable-mobile-network-expansion_English.pdf

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