Vodafone and the ITU have launched a major new initiative to address the global digital divide. The program aims to give an additional 3.4 billion worldwide the ability to access and use the internet through a smartphone by 2030, Vodafone announced.
The new working group, co-chaired by Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read and ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, will identify policy, commercial and circular economy actions to increase smartphone access. Launch partners for the initiative include the GSMA, Vodacom Group, Safaricom, Smart Africa, the government of Ghana, the World Wide Web Foundation, and the Alliance for Affordable Internet.
In a statement announcing the initiative, Vodafone cited GSMA Connected Society research showing 82 per cent of the citizens of low- and middle-income countries are now covered by 4G mobile networks, but many lack a capable device.
Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group, said: “Vodafone is honored to be part of this monumental global initiative with the UN, to improve the lives of billions of people through smartphone access. 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. 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.”
Houlin Zhao, Secretary General of the ITU, said: “Achieving the Broadband Commission Global Targets requires a multi-stakeholder approach. 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.”
Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Ghana’s Minister for Communications and Digitalization, stated 45 per cent of people in West Africa are covered by mobile broadband networks but do not use the internet.
Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, officer-in-charge of the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, explained the Vodafone and ITU working group will play a key role in helping the body achieve its goal of universal connectivity by 2030 by helping ensure the global shift to digital technology “is beneficial and makes our societies more equal and not less.”
The Broadband Commission Working Group will produce a report and set of recommendations including:
original analysis and data on the smartphone access gap;
quantification of the social and economic impact of providing everyone with smartphone access by 2030, including assessment of moving users from 2G feature phones to 4G smartphones; and
analysis of initiatives or pilots designed to increase smartphone access. Vodafone Group has committed to launch two pilot projects on device affordability as part of this process.
“This partnership is key to expand access to the internet,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. “I am confident that the outcome report will provide guidance to all our stakeholders as we prepare for the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in 2022 to build a world where no one is left off-line.”
To coincide with the creation of this new ITU working group, Vodafone, Safaricom and Vodacom have published the second Africa.Connected report in accelerating 4G roll-out in sub-Saharan Africa. The report, prepared by consultancy Caribou Digital, outlines four key steps to boosting digital access across African. This includes making 4G devices more accessible; investing in the demand for 4G services; providing targeted financing for underserved demographics; and re-farming 2G spectrum to enable more people to use 4G services.