As the cost of mobile connectivity falls, and coverage improves, more and more people can access the internet. But to take full advantage of digital services, individuals need the right skills, relevant content and the know-how to stay safe online.
A lack of fundamental digital skills and confidence, compounded by low levels of literacy, means many people simply don’t access the internet at all. In some cases, individuals may not be aware of online services or understand how they are relevant to their lives. In low-income countries, such barriers can exclude large swathes of the population: In Bangladesh, for example, 87 per cent of the population use mobile handsets for calls and messages, but only 25 per cent access the mobile Internet.
Alert to these issues, mobile operators are working with governments, partners and the GSMA to change this paradigm. For example, operators are using the GSMA’s Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT) to help customers learn how to use digital services. In a three-month pilot of the MISTT, more than 77 per cent of the 80,000 customers trained by Tigo Rwanda increased their data usage. In Bangladesh, 3,200 sales agents for Banglalink used the MISTT to train more than 117,000 customers over three months. The programme led to a 228 per cent increase in mobile internet usage amongst participating customers.
Also in Bangladesh, Robi Axiata, Huawei and the government have used a “digital bus”, equipped with connectivity, laptops and specialised software, to train 63,000 women and girls in rural areas. “I didn’t know about ICT before the bus arrived,” says Urmi Sahara Oishi, one of the students who has benefitted from the training. “I felt encouraged to do this training and it makes me more confident.”
The role of relevant services and content
But training isn’t sufficient on its own. Beyond North America, Western Europe and developed Asia, there is often a dearth of relevant content and services. For example, leading smartphone apps are only accessible to 10 per cent of Pakistan’s population in a language they can understand.
Mobile operators are trying to fill that gap. For example, Sri Lanka now has its first personalised web-based service dedicated to women’s health and wellbeing. Launched by mobile operator Dialog, the Yeheli (meaning female friend) app allows users to ask questions anonymously in Sinhala, Tamil and English, and to receive bespoke answers from experts.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, the GSMA and local mobile operators are supporting Ruanggurru, an online marketplace for personalised education. The service helps Indonesia’s teachers and tutors generate content, which students can access for free, or they can request personalised advice for a fee.
Nurturing a safe online environment
The mobile industry is also stepping up its efforts to help inexperienced Internet users feel comfortable and safe online. More than 80 CEOs have signed the GSMA’s Digital Declaration, which includes a commitment to delivering a safe online environment.
In their individual markets, operators are taking practical steps to curb cyber-bullying, trolling and abuse online. For example, AT&T’s #LaterHaters campaign, which generated more than 12.6 million Snapchat impressions, has prompted more than 8,000 people to sign an online pledge to stop online hate. In Columbia, Tigo’s awareness-raising mini-series, Patchers, has already had more than 3.5 million views on YouTube. Launched in August 2019, the five-part mini-series chronicles the story of various young people who experience cyber-bullying, sexuality, excessive internet use and other online issues.
Mobile operators are also trying to safeguard their customers, particularly women, in other ways. For example, in 2018, Vodafone Idea launched the Sakhi safety service for women across India. It can be used to send your location to your emergency contacts, access an emergency balance (when you have no credit) and to top up credit privately (so women don’t have to give their number to an agent). Vodafone says the service, which works on any type of mobile phone, is used by millions of women.