Closing the mobile internet ‘usage gap’ should be a priority for countries seeking to deliver against the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals, according to the GSMA’s seventh annual Mobile Industry Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals.
The report shows that, six years after becoming the first industry to commit to the SDGs, the mobile sector continues to increase its contribution to the achievement of all 17 goals. However, despite mobile operators’ continued commitment to the 2030 agenda, there is still a long way to go.
A combination of global conflict, growing food and energy poverty, economic uncertainty, and the ongoing impacts of Covid-19 are creating significant headwinds, currently threatening SDG progress worldwide. In the face of these challenges, the report highlights the crucial role mobile connectivity and connected technologies can play as enablers, supporting countries as they ‘build forward better’ in pursuit of economic recovery and resilience.
In many countries, particularly low- to middle-income nations, mobile is the principal way to access the internet. Mobile operators’ investments in network infrastructure have helped to shrink the ‘coverage gap’ for mobile broadband networks from 1.4 billion people in 2015 to 400 million people in 2022, contributing strongly to a range of SDG indicators.
However, around 3.2 billion people who are covered by networks are still unable to reap the benefits of this connectivity, due to lack of skills, knowledge, affordability, relevant content and other factors. This ‘usage gap’ is fast emerging as one of the biggest ‘brakes’ on economic and social progress globally.
The report demonstrates how people with access to fast, reliable networks are able to stay connected to friends and family, work remotely, access education and health services, build innovative businesses, improve efficiencies and reduce carbon emissions. Those without access, in contrast, are most vulnerable to economic and social disruption, and risk falling further behind as the world emerges from the pandemic, especially as online services become even more integral to society.
Jose-Maria Alvarez Pallete, CEO of Telefonica and GSMA Chairman said: “In a world where conflict, food insecurity and economic uncertainty are at the top of the global agenda, mobile has never had a more important role to play. The GSMA’s SDG Impact Report demonstrates the transformational impact of communications in tackling these enormous challenges, acting as a catalyst for positive change and delivering meaningful progress.”
GSMA Director General, Mats Granryd, said: “The UN General Assembly in New York this week is a powerful reminder of the importance of collective action in the face of growing global challenges. The SDGs remain a guiding compass for global progress, and the mobile industry is proud to be both an advocate for them, and a crucial enabler of their delivery.
“Mobile connectivity and digital inclusion are essential tools to achieve the ambitious goals laid out in the 2030 Agenda and help the world face into the headwinds of global inequality, poverty and conflict. We urge policymakers to address the barriers that constrain private sector investment in high-quality mobile networks and to join in helping close the ‘usage gap’ that holds back so many from living up to their potential in our increasingly connected world. Together, we can harness the power of connectivity as a catalyst for economic recovery, social progress, and digital inclusion, improving the lives of millions worldwide.”
The mobile industry’s SDG contributions
The mobile industry increased its impact on all 17 SDGs in 2021, with the average year-on-year increase accelerating compared with 2020. The average SDG impact score across the 17 SDGs reached 53, up from 49 in 2020 and 32 in 2015, meaning the mobile industry is achieving 53% of what it could potentially contribute to the SDGs. Other highlights include:
- There are now eleven SDGs where mobile’s contribution is over 50, compared to six in 2020 and none in 2015.
- The mobile industry continues to achieve its highest impact on SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, driven by the reach of mobile networks and take-up of mobile internet services.
- The biggest improvements were recorded in the industry’s contribution to SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 4: Quality Education. This is due to the increasing proportion of people using mobile for life-enhancing activities such as accessing government services, applying and searching for jobs and obtaining educational information for themselves or their children.
- By the end of 2021, 5.3 billion people (66% of the global population) were using a mobile phone, while 4.3 billion people (55% of the global population) were also using mobile internet. This includes more than 3.3 billion mobile internet subscribers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where mobile is the primary and, in many cases only, form of internet access.
- The ‘usage gap’ – those who live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but remain unconnected – narrowed for the third year in a row, but still stands at 3.2 billion people. The mobile industry and its partners continue to tackle the reasons for the usage gap, which generally relate to a lack of affordability, knowledge and skills, relevance, in addition to safety and security concerns.
- Usage of mobile-enabled activities reached new heights in 2021, as mobile subscribers ventured further into online services.
- 3.5 billion people (67% of mobile subscribers) used their phones to make video calls in 2021. This represents an additional 330 million people since 2020, aiding remote work and other online activities.
- 2.5 billion people (48% of mobile subscribers) used their phone to access educational information for themselves or their children, representing an increase of 410 million since 2020.
- 2.1 billion people (41% of mobile subscribers) used their phone to improve or monitor their health, representing an increase of 270 million since 2020.
- Usage of mobile-enabled services remained considerably lower in developing countries. On average, the gap between the usage of mobile-enabled services in high-income countries and LMICs is 17 percentage points, underlining the importance of operator efforts to introduce more locally-relevant content and upgrade networks to enable access to services requiring a higher-quality connection.
- The mobile industry is making continued progress on disclosing climate impact data and setting targets for emissions reductions. At the end of 2021, 66% of operators by connections and 82% by revenue disclosed their climate impacts, while 34% of operators by connections and 44% by revenue had set carbon reduction targets to be net zero by 2050.
- Mobile and digital technology could enable just under 40% of the required CO2 reductions needed by 2030 within the top four largest-emitting industries. These four industries – manufacturing, power and energy, transport, and buildings – account for 80% of global emissions.
- There has been strong growth in the issuance of sustainability bonds in the mobile sector. This highlights that operators are increasingly securing funding on the basis of achieving social and environmental – rather than purely financial – targets.
- With stakeholders getting smarter and more discerning when it comes to ESG claims, an effective and consistent approach to measuring and communicating performance is more important than ever. The GSMA has recently launched ESG Metrics for Mobile, a first-of-its-kind mobile sector ESG reporting framework featuring ten industry-specific KPIs. The KPIs will allow stakeholders to gain a much deeper understanding of the industry’s nuances and contexts, and create opportunities for the industry to demonstrate its impact in a more consistent manner.