opinion


Bridging the coverage and connectivity gaps in mobile internet

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece by Brett Tarnutzer, Head of spectrum at the GSMA, talks about the importance of connecting the unconnected.

Ten years is a long time in the world of mobile. Indeed, the developments that have taken place over the last decade have reshaped how and where people access information. For example, since 2010 more than 2.5 billion people have gained access to the internet via a mobile device – that’s around 685,000 new connections a day.

As impressive as that might sound, 600 million individuals still live in areas without coverage and there are a further 3.4 billion people who also remain unconnected because of poor literacy, a lack of digital skills or they simply can’t afford access to mobile broadband. The size of these two groups is cause for alarm given the consequences for wider society as it limits access to jobs, education and healthcare. Moreover, and perhaps even more pressing in today’s world, an inability to access mobile internet also restricts social interaction with the wider world.

This is a real concern, especially as Covid-19 has made affordable, inclusive connectivity more important than ever. The pandemic is reshaping the lives of people across the globe with lockdowns, social distancing and remote working becoming daily realities for many. Connectivity gaps risk leaving people without the ability to access the economic and social tools they need. This is why governments and regulators must step in and address the issues that are stymying digital inclusion.

Fortunately, there are good examples of how joint intervention between governments, regulators and operators can help; blueprints for schemes that bring together legislators and industry operators to best serve the needs of the community by closing the digital divide. As part of the GSMA’s latest coverage project, we’ve taken a detailed look into how affiliations of governments and regulators have effectively worked together with operators in France, Ghana, New Zealand, Peru, Tunisia and the UK.

The resulting insights sit at the heart of our new policy paper, ‘Driving the Digital Revolution with Improved Mobile Coverage’, which makes recommendations about how best to extend connectivity. It provides proposals on issues such as spectrum pricing and availability, licence terms and conditions, planning approval processes, infrastructure sharing and state interventions. The key takeaway is that while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, there is ample inspiration from around the world of the types of partnerships needed to build effective policies that improve mobile coverage and access.

One of the biggest issues for operators is extending connectivity, especially in rural areas where the initial investment and daily operating costs are higher than in an urban setting, and where revenue can be up to 10 times lower as a result of reduced population densities. Tackling this issue requires cooperation and collaboration which is built on four key elements:

  • A clear government vision and objectives
  • A strong relationship between governments/regulators, local authorities and mobile operators
  • The possibility for operators to share infrastructure to bring costs down
  • Coverage obligations in combination with measures to minimise operator expenditure

It is also important for governments to take a lead on developing the digital skills necessary for people to fully benefit from the socio-economic advantages that come with mobile internet access. In addition, policy makers should examine the possibility of reducing taxes on mobile devices and their usage to help ensure affordable access to the widest possible demographic.

The GSMA’s mission is to ensure that people, wherever they live, can be connected to the mobile internet. To achieve this goal, we have formulated approaches that can help deliver that vision but our work isn’t over; we continue to analyse the results from government/industry partnerships, using the insights to help strengthen our strategy and optimise for what works best. Including the excluded – bridging the digital divide – is an essential part of creating an inclusive, connected society. The GSMA is working tirelessly with the mobile industry and regulators on achieving that goal.

 

Brett Tarnutzer directs the GSMA’s full range of spectrum-related activities and, in collaboration with the GSMA membership, represents the industry on critical spectrum policy issues with national governments and multilateral organisations. Prior to joining the GSMA, Brett worked for the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where Brett served as both assistant chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, dealing with a wide range of spectrum-related issues and as senior member of the Incentive Auction Task Force, designing the first-ever auction to incentivise the transfer of spectrum from broadcast to mobile use.

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