4. Tackling digital disadvantage with people-centred policies

Genaro Cruz
Melle Tiel Groenestege
  • Of the 3.8 billion people around the world who remain unconnected to mobile Internet, 88% live in an area already covered by mobile broadband but do not use mobile Internet services.

  • While it has narrowed, a significant gender gap persists: women in low- and middle-income countries are 15% less likely than men to use mobile Internet and to own a smartphone.

  • The main barriers to mobile Internet adoption are affordability, knowledge and digital skills, lack of relevant content and services, safety and security concerns, and access to enablers.

  • Development co-operation can help fix divides in three ways: support the collection of data and insights on the unconnected, provide capacity building and technical assistance for an enabling policy environment, and finance projects that help address the barriers to Internet adoption.

Mobile phones are driving unprecedented growth in global connectivity. By the end of 2020, over 4 billion people were using mobile Internet, an increase of 220 million in just one year (GSMA, 2021[1]). Mobile continues to be the primary and, in some cases only, way most people access the Internet, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. For example, 85% of all Internet users in Bangladesh and 69% of those in Kenya are mobile-only users (GSMA, 2021[1]).

These figures are a testament to the rapid expansion of mobile broadband coverage in recent years. However, more than 3.8 billion people were not using mobile Internet in 2020, and if no additional action is taken it will be difficult to achieve the universal connectivity goal of the SDGs (GSMA, 2020[2]). Connectivity played a crucial role during the COVID-19 pandemic as many activities moved on line. Yet, preliminary GSMA research shows that while people substantially increased their data consumption, the rate of new users adopting mobile Internet did not significantly accelerate. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people unconnected to mobile Internet are living in low- and middle-income countries (93%), and are more likely to be poorer, less educated, female and rural. The gender gap in mobile Internet use has continued to narrow but remains significant: women, across low- and middle-income countries, are 15% less likely to use mobile Internet than men, which means that there are 234 million fewer women than men using mobile Internet (GSMA, 2021[3]).

The main challenge to closing the persistent digital divide today is no longer as straightforward as a lack of digital infrastructure. Other demand-related barriers prevent people from adopting and using the Internet. Most (88%) of those 3.8 billion people who were unconnected to mobile Internet in 2020 worldwide live in areas that are already covered by mobile broadband but face other barriers. They may be unable to afford a smartphone or lack literacy or digital skills, for instance, or are held back by restrictive social norms.

Improving connectivity has substantial long-term benefits. Research shows that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration leads to growth of 1.5% in gross domestic product (GDP) (ITU, 2020[4]). While the digital divide risks exacerbating existing societal inequities, closing the gender gap in mobile Internet use across low- and middle-income countries could add USD 700 billion in GDP growth over a five-year period, representing an additional 0.7% of GDP growth (GSMA, 2019[5]).

Increased connectivity also transforms people’s lives. A recent study in the United Republic of Tanzania finds mobile broadband coverage increases household consumption by 7% and decreases poverty by 5 percentage points, effects driven mainly by positive impacts on labour market outcomes (Bahia et al., 2021[6]). Mobile Internet improves people’s well-being, providing access to important information that they could not otherwise access and that assists them in their daily lives (GSMA, 2020[7]). Depending on the country, 58-90% of female mobile owners report that it helps them in their day-to-day work, studies or household chores (GSMA, 2020[7]), with many reporting they use mobile Internet to post photos of their products on social media to attract new customers, search for recipes for nutritious household meals, consult with doctors on line and check prices of products on line before making a purchase.1

A narrow focus on infrastructure policies alone will be insufficient to close the digital divide. Internet adoption has not kept pace with the rapid expansion of mobile broadband coverage (Figure 4.1). Policies that enable the expansion of mobile networks remain important, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where as much as 19% of the population still do not have access to mobile broadband. But the focus of policy making needs to shift to people and end users to tackle the barriers to mobile Internet adoption and use. Such an approach should also strengthen efforts to address the specific needs of underserved groups such as women and persons with disabilities, who are disproportionally excluded from the benefits of an increasingly connected society (GSMA, 2020[7]).

GSMA research in low- and middle-income countries has identified five specific barriers to people’s adoption and use of available mobile Internet: affordability, knowledge and skills, safety and security, relevance, and access to enablers such as electricity and formal IDs. Though all five of these are present in some way, the salience of each varies depending on the region and the country’s level of digital development. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the two most frequently reported barriers are affordability, particularly handset affordability, and lack of literacy and digital skills. People in Latin America, on the other hand, cite concern about safety and security as the main barrier to their use of mobile Internet. Governments that aim to close the digital divide thus need a comprehensive policy framework that addresses all these barriers in a holistic manner (GSMA, 2021[8]).

In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the two most frequently reported barriers are affordability, particularly handset affordability, and lack of literacy and digital skills. People in Latin America, on the other hand, cite concern about safety and security as the main barrier to their use of mobile Internet.   

The purchasing cost of an Internet-enabled handset is a significant barrier to mobile ownership. Though prices for data bundles have dropped by 40% since 2016, half of low- and middle-income countries do not yet meet the United Nation’s 2% affordability target (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2021[9]).2 Moreover, the affordability barrier disproportionately affects women, who often have less financial independence and lower incomes than men and lack the same access to external sources of finance. Women in low- and middle-income countries are 15% less likely than men to own a smartphone (GSMA, 2021[3]).

Policies to improve affordability should focus on increasing people’s purchasing power, for example through the use of targeted subsidies, and on lowering unnecessary costs for the provision of mobile services, for example by removing sector-specific taxes and setting appropriate spectrum prices (GSMA, 2021[8]). Other policies include those that enable innovative pricing and handset financing strategies and ensure pricing flexibility of data bundles in competitive markets. An example is the Safaricom Lipa Mdogo Mdogo initiative in Kenya, which enables customers to purchase a smartphone and pay for it in small instalments; together with its Maisha Ni Digital (“Life is Digital”) campaign, it is increasing smartphone adoption among women (GSMA, 2021[10]). Pricing flexibility is important to improve affordability while also maintaining healthy levels of investments in infrastructure (GSMA, 2018[11]).

GSMA research in eight low- and middle-income countries finds that nearly a quarter of people surveyed, and particularly rural and female populations, are unaware of mobile Internet and how it can benefit them3 (GSMA, 2020[2]).4 For example, in India, only 53% of women are aware of mobile Internet (GSMA, 2021[3]). Even among mobile users who are aware, a lack of literacy and digital skills – for instance, how to set up an account or use popular mobile applications – is often reported as the number one barrier to mobile Internet adoption. Women and persons with disabilities, who have lower literacy rates and levels of education, particularly face this barrier (GSMA, 2021[3]; 2020[12]).

Initiatives aimed at improving digital skills should be aligned with the needs of users and understand what motivates them to learn, which can vary depending on a range of factors, including their life needs and skill levels. GSMA research shows that communication, social networking and entertainment are often the primary entry points to mobile Internet use (GSMA, 2021[1]). Any programme to improve digital skills should reflect the fact that most people access the Internet through a mobile device. Where appropriate, digital tools can help support independent learning and train the trainer programmes can facilitate community learning. The Digital Ambassadors Programme in Rwanda, led by the government in partnership with a non-governmental organisation, is an example of a train the trainer initiative. Following a successful trial, it will train 5 000 young men and women to go out into communities and teach basic digital skills and how to use e-commerce and e-government services to 5 million Rwandans who have little or no experience using the Internet.5

The local ecosystem of digital services and resources in many low- and middle-income countries is underdeveloped and content, products and services do not correspond to users’ capabilities and needs. For example, while the COVID-19 crisis spurred an increase in online shopping, just 8% of people in South Africa and 24% of people in Brazil used e-commerce (UNCTAD, 2021[13]). To enable the expansion of a local offering of digital services and content that motivate people go on line and maximise the benefits for local businesses of having an online presence requires appropriate policies to be in place. Such policies should help to create an enabling environment for digital businesses to thrive, for start-ups to grow, and for priority sectors and small and medium-sized enterprises to deliver on their digital transformation strategies. Governments can also stimulate the local ecosystem by accelerating the digitalisation of public services. This not only increases the value of mobile Internet adoption, but can also contribute to creating a digital industry – jobs, skills and infrastructure – to fuel the local digital transformation.

Concerns about safety and security, including around risks such as online harassment or bullying, disinformation, scams, and even theft are increasingly keeping people from going on line and having a positive Internet experience. Women, in particular, can face safety and harassment concerns that deter them from owning a handset or using the Internet. In South Africa, for example, 22% of female mobile users who are aware of mobile Internet but are not using it reported that the main reason is safety and security-related issues; only 5% of males with the same profile cited these as the main reason (GSMA, 2020[7]). However, it is important to note that many women feel that mobile ownership and access to mobile services can also enhance their personal security (GSMA, 2018[14]).

Policy makers should ensure that appropriate policy and legal frameworks are in place that recognise safety and security risks. They also should provide users with relevant capabilities and tools to address risks, including awareness campaigns, training or helplines. To build confidence and trust, a co-regulatory model should be adopted to tackle disinformation. Promising initiatives include the European Union and Australian Codes of Practice on Disinformation. Research shows that mobile users are concerned about the privacy of their personal data and want simple, clear choices to control how their information is used and to know that they can trust companies with their data (GSMA, 2014[15]). Data privacy laws that protect the fundamental right of individuals to privacy, but are flexible enough to encourage innovation should be put in place.6

Using the Internet depends on enablers such as electricity, formal proof of identification, agents7 and accessibility features, which makes them an important area for action to increase adoption. One billion people still lack formal proof of identification, for example, while regulations in over 150 countries require such proof to sign up for a SIM card (GSMA, 2021[16]). Lack of electricity (e.g. to charge a device) is a barrier, as are accessibility challenges (e.g. for persons with low literacy or disabilities). Women may find agents, electricity or a quality connection particularly difficult to access when these are only available outside the home, either in locations that are unsafe or where social norms constrain women’s freedom of movement. Women are also less likely to have the official identification documents required to register for a SIM card.8

Policies could address these barriers by, for example, expanding access to electricity, including by leveraging mobile technology for off-grid energy solutions (GSMA, 2020[17]; 2017[18]). Registration processes for mobile and other digital services should be inclusive and transparent, which requires balanced SIM registration requirements and consistent application of consumer protection rules across the digital ecosystem. A recent study in 31 countries by the GSMA (2021[16]) found that when governments in 11 countries relaxed regulatory requirements for on-boarding new users (e.g. allowing a wider range of proof of identity and limited services with less customer information), more people were able to access mobile Internet services. Making services, sales channels and training facilities accessible to underserved groups such as women and persons with disabilities should also be considered alongside developing and improving accessibility features. This is particularly important for women in places where social norms limit their mobility and, for instance, prevent them from talking to male agents to buy airtime or visiting a cybercafé or library where men who are not members of their family are present.

Much emphasis and substantial resources have been devoted to expanding mobile broadband infrastructure. More than 160 countries have a national broadband strategy (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2020[19]). These efforts have paid off in steadily expanded coverage, with 94% of the world’s population covered by broadband in 2020 compared to 56% in 2010.

However, increasing adoption and use is a more complex challenge, as it requires people-focused policies that consider the needs of end users and address barriers of affordability, digital literacy, trust, relevance and accessibility. Not only are these inextricably tied to broader socio-economic challenges, but responsibility to address these barriers is distributed across a wide array of ministries, regulators, agencies and stakeholders. This problem is compounded by the lack of reliable data on the unconnected, especially gender-disaggregated data, to target policy action.

Successful policy strategies therefore need to recognise the structural challenges and cross-cutting nature of improving digital inclusion, prioritise data collection and aim to address all barriers in a holistic manner through a whole-of-government approach. Development co-operation can help ensure the process also advances sustainable, inclusive development by:

  • increasing local capacity to collect and analyse granular, reliable and gender-disaggregated data to better understand the context, characteristics and needs of the unconnected

  • providing capacity-building and technical assistance to support governments in designing and implementing policies and regulations that tackle the five key barriers to mobile Internet adoption and use

  • financing projects that address the barriers to mobile Internet use, with an emphasis on digital skills initiatives in partnership with local stakeholders and the private sector.


[6] Bahia, K. et al. (2021), “Mobile broadband internet, poverty and labor outcomes in Tanzania”, Policy Research Working Paper, No. 9749, World Bank, Washington, DC, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/36172 (accessed on 5 October 2021).

[9] Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development (2021), “2025 targets: Connecting the other half”, web page, https://broadbandcommission.org/broadband-targets (accessed on 5 October 2021).

[19] Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development (2020), The State of Broadband 2020: Tackling Digital Inequalities, International Telecommunication Union and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Geneva and New York, NY, https://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-s/opb/pol/S-POL-BROADBAND.21-2020-PDF-E.pdf.

[8] GSMA (2021), Accelerating Mobile Internet Adoption: Policy Considerations to Bridge the Digital Divide in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Accelerating-Mobile-Internet-Adoption-Policy-Considerations.pdf.

[16] GSMA (2021), Access to Mobile Services and Proof of Identity 2021: Revisiting SIM Registration and Know Your Customer (KYC) Contexts During COVID-19, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Digital-Identity-Access-to-Mobile-Services-and-Proof-of-Identity-2021_SPREADs.pdf.

[10] GSMA (2021), Safaricom’s Maisha Ni Digital Campaign: A Holistic Approach to Address the Barriers Preventing Kenyan Women from Using Mobile Internet, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Safaricom-Maisha-Ni-Digital-Case-Study.pdf.

[3] GSMA (2021), The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2021, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/r/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/The-Mobile-Gender-Gap-Report-2021.pdf.

[1] GSMA (2021), The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2021, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/r/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-State-of-Mobile-Internet-Connectivity-Report-2021.pdf.

[12] GSMA (2020), The Mobile Disability Gap Report 2020, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/GSMA_Mobile-Disability-Gap-Report-2020_32pg_WEB.pdf.

[7] GSMA (2020), The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/GSMA-The-Mobile-Gender-Gap-Report-2020.pdf.

[2] GSMA (2020), The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2020, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/r/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/GSMA-State-of-Mobile-Internet-Connectivity-Report-2020.pdf.

[17] GSMA (2020), The Value of Pay-As-You-Go Solar for Mobile Operators, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/resources/the-value-of-pay-as-you-go-solar-for-mobile-operators.

[5] GSMA (2019), The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/GSMA-Connected-Women-The-Mobile-Gender-Gap-Report-2019.pdf.

[14] GSMA (2018), A Framework to Understand Women’s Mobile-related Safety Concerns, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/A-framework-to-understand-womens-mobile-report_Mar_v12_MI080618.pdf.

[11] GSMA (2018), Assessing the Impact of Market Structure on Innovation and Quality, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Assessing_impact-market-structure.pdf.

[18] GSMA (2017), Mobile for Development Utilities: Lessons from the Use of Mobile in Utility Pay-as-you-go Models, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Lessons-from-the-use-of-mobile-in-utility-pay-as-you-go-models.pdf.

[15] GSMA (2014), Mobile Privacy: Consumer Research Insights and Considerations for Policymakers, GSMA, London, https://www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/GSMA2014_Research_MobilePrivacyConsumerResearchInsightsForPolicymakers.pdf.

[4] ITU (2020), “Economic impact of broadband, digitization and ICT regulation”, web page, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Regulatory-Market/Pages/Economic-Contribution.aspx (accessed on 5 October 2021).

[13] UNCTAD (2021), “COVID-19 has changed online shopping forever, survey shows”, news, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Geneva, https://unctad.org/news/covid-19-has-changed-online-shopping-forever-survey-shows (accessed on 5 October 2021).


← 1. The GSMA conducts field research to understand the way women use mobile Internet and how it benefits them. Some of these use cases are brought to life in a series of videos available at: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/resources/connected-women-life-stories.

← 2. The target is for entry-level broadband services in developing countries to be affordable by 2025. The UN Broadband Commission considers an entry-level data bundle (e.g. 1 gigabyte) affordable to the average consumer when it costs less than 2% of the country’s monthly gross national income per capita. See: https://www.broadbandcommission.org/broadband-targets.

← 3. The GSMA conducts a nationally representative field survey of about 1 000 male and female adults aged 18 and older. Face-to-face interviews took place in 8 low- and middle-income countries in 2020, 15 in 2019, 18 in 2018 and 24 in 2017. The eight surveyed in 2020 were Algeria, Bangladesh, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Pakistan. The countries included for all years in the survey account for about 78% of the population in low- and middle-income countries.

← 4. Survey respondents are aware of mobile Internet if they have ever used the Internet on a mobile phone or are aware it is possible to access the Internet on a mobile phone.

← 5. For more information, see the Rwanda Ministry of Information Communication Technology and Innovation website at: https://www.minict.gov.rw/news-detail/digital-ambassador-programme-to-connect-5-million-rwandans.

← 6. The GSMA Data Privacy Principles address protection of consumers’ data when they use mobile applications and services that access, collect and use personal information. See: https://www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/resources/mobile-privacy-principles.

← 7. In many low- and middle-income countries, most people use prepaid mobile services to buy airtime and data from a network of retail agents.

← 8. See: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Digital-Identity-Access-to-Mobile-Services-and-Proof-of-Identity-2021_SPREADs.pdf.

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