With less than three years left to achieve the Commission’s 2025 Advocacy Targets, making our shared ambitions a reality requires us to focus on specific and rapidly evolving elements of the digital economy. We need to capitalize on the lessons learned during the pandemic, understand the implications of the evolving Internet value chain and consider the role of the ICT sector in responding to climate change.
Closing the gender digital divide
During the pandemic, mobile operators ensured vital connectivity by quickly adapting to the additional demands on networks. But existing digital divides persist and can re-emerge: for example, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women and, after steadily decreasing from 67 per cent in 2017 to 36 per cent in 2020, the mobile Internet gender gap widened to 41 per cent in the past year.1
Since mobile remains the primary and often only way women access the Internet, particularly in lower and middle-income countries, this data represents a clear call for action. GSMA is intensifying efforts to bridge the gender digital divide, and through our Connected Women Commitment initiative, over 40 mobile operators have made commitments to reach a total of 60 million women with mobile Internet and mobile money services by 2025.
Understanding the evolving Internet value chain
While attempting to meet our connectivity and affordability targets, we must also reflect on the economics of the Internet value chain, and consider the viability of traditional financing models to support investment in network capacity, coverage and speed. Over the past six years, average returns for Internet access connectivity providers have been almost flat, while online services and content rights segments have at least doubled investors’ stakes and now represent 57 per cent of the entire value chain in terms of revenue.2
Through its Working Group on 21st Century Financing Models, the Broadband Commission pioneered global efforts to scrutinize these dynamics, and produced actionable recommendations for new financing and investment approaches to ensure that digital inclusion is not hampered by market distortions or inefficient regulatory mechanisms. This important contribution should be taken as a point of reference by policy-makers and business leaders alike.
Responding to climate change
Finally, I believe it is essential that our efforts to make the world more connected embed an imperative to support global carbon reduction objectives. The mobile industry continues to align around the 1.5˚C decarbonization path and, over the past year, has been successful in decoupling data and emissions: in 2021, global data traffic increased by 31 per cent, with electricity usage up 5 per cent, but associated carbon emissions only grew by 2 per cent, even in the face of a double-digit increase in demand for mobile services.3 A broad and shared commitment to foster climate disclosure is paramount to understand current emissions and track progress in reducing them, enabling a twin digital and green transition.
Achieving the advocacy targets by 2025 will no doubt require an unprecedented effort across our entire community. At the same time, this shared sense of urgency will incentivize new partnerships across governments, international institutions and the private sector, and accelerate the multistakeholder collaboration that is necessary to close the digital divide and face the challenges of our times.