Working Group on
Smartphone Access

How can we close the smartphone access gap and ensure greater digital inclusion?

The Broadband Commission Working Group on Smartphone Access represents the first multi-stakeholder analysis to outline actionable recommendations to address smartphone access challenges. 

The Working Group was co-chaired by Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group, Houlin Zhao, Secretary General of the ITU and Rabab Fatima, UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS) and drew upon the expertise of a cross sectoral body of Commissioners and experts. The outcome report, Strategies towards universal smartphone access.’ delivers a five point action plan that aims to guide stakeholders in driving real progress in the area of smartphone access and tackling the digital divide. 

Setting the Stage

Digital connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury.

Connectivity is an increasingly essential good in today’s digital society, enabling critical access to information, education and opportunity that contributes to economic growth. The COVID-19 pandemic has furthermore demonstrated the key role that internet access plays in the delivery of critical services such as agriculture, e-learning, health care, remote working, economic development, public services delivery, financial services, and disaster recovery.

Despite the progress that has been made to get more people online, nearly 2.7 billion peoplearound a third of the global population – still cannot or do not access the internet. 

The majority of people that remain unconnected live in the least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries (LLDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS), which is exacerbating the digital divide in emerging markets and hindering countries from achieving their full socio-economic potential.

Around 97% of the world’s population now has access to a mobile data network but there is a disparity between connectivity and adoption. The adoption gap arises when individuals do not use the internet even when mobile network coverage exists; this is over
seven times (43%) larger than the coverage gap (6%) globally. 

Why do we need universal smartphone access?

Smartphone access improves quality of life. National studies have consistently shown a positive correlation between internet adoption and GDP, as well as socio-economic well-being in emerging markets. Transitioning users from 2G/3G to 4G/5G would yield even more improved benefits.

This impact is felt more acutely by women and those with a basic level of literacy. In households in which smartphones are withheld from female family members, the digital divide is another blow to gender equality. 

Challenges to smartphone adoption

In terms of supply-side barriers, handset affordability was identified as the top reason for not obtaining a smartphone in emerging markets due to high retail costs, duties and taxes, data costs, charging costs and other logistical challenges.

Handset affordability affects women more than men and is cited as the top barrier precluding women from smartphone ownership. 

On the demand side, a lack of consumer awareness, local incentives and basic digital skills erodes consumer confidence, limiting the adoption of smartphones. Available studies show that technical and financial literacy contribute to consumer confidence in owning and using smartphones in emerging markets and the lack of content in local language, with local context, presents another challenge to overcoming operative difficulties. 

The Way Forward

Working Group Recommendations

The Working Group recommends three key interventions to make smartphones accessible to all

Other intervention areas that merit further exploration include device subsidies and the reuse of preowned devices.

The Working Group will create taskforces to complete a five-point action plan resulting from its findings

Download the report to learn more about these recommendations and how to implement them. 

The Working Group Model

Composition and Activities

The Working Group included representatives from: America Móvil; the government of Benin; the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN; the government of Ghana; the GSMA; the International Trade Centre; Intelsat; the International Science Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation; Millicom; Smart Africa; ZTE; and the World Wide Web Foundation. 

The lead author of the report was Professor Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania. The report has been informed by research from GSMA, ITU and 19 structured expert interviews, as well as insights from International Trade Centre (ITC) convened focus group of entrepreneurs and extensive desk research.

Prior to this report, efforts to address smartphone access challenges have been hindered by a lack of concrete information regarding their relative importance and the effectiveness of interventions to address them.

This study aims to evaluate their importance and make recommendations of priority actions – to drive real progress in the area of smartphone access and tackling the digital divide.