Building back better from COVID-19: What does it mean for mobile?

The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst health crisis in a century, triggering health and economic impacts unmatched in recent times. Despite positive developments with vaccines, restrictions and lockdowns are still widespread and all signs point to these impacts continuing deep into 2021.

One silver lining emerging from the pandemic is that it has sparked an energetic discussion about ‘building back better to be more a resilient, more sustainable, and fairer world’. There is also recognition that much more needs to be done to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 alongside building back from COVID-19.

But what does this mean for the mobile sector in practice as we enter the Decade of Action?

Decade of Action

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the mobile sector was well on the way to supporting delivery of the SDGs. Analysis in our 2020 Mobile Industry Impact Report shows the sector has made progress on all 17 SDGs for the fifth year in a row. We can be proud of these achievements, but the next ten years is where the real work lies. This is what the UN is calling the Decade of Action.

The report shows how mobile connectivity can deliver sustainable outcomes in relation to digital access, economic contribution, job creation and greenhouse gas reductions. It is these areas the sector needs to amplify significantly in the next ten years.

Mobile’s resilience

A significant positive arising from the pandemic is clear proof the mobile sector is resilient and future fit for the Decade of Action. In the first half of 2020, up to half of the world was in lockdown[1] creating a reliance on mobile never seen before. Data use surged massively with increases between 20 and 100 per cent, and networks around the world successfully withstood this unprecedented stress test. That the sector coped with this is testament to the investment and progress made by operators around the world.

Not only has the sector stood up to increased demand through the pandemic. Mobile operators have shown great versatility, playing an essential role in supporting governments and societies, enabling remote working, the digitalisation of commerce, education and health services, and helping people stay connected to family and friends through challenging times.

Shifting sustainability priorities

But what about the impact of COVID-19 on sustainability within the sector?

The GSMA’s latest research report explores this very topic. The report – ‘New perspectives: How COVID-19 has shifted sustainability priorities in the mobile sector’ – shows several key sustainability issues for mobile operators have shifted as a result of the pandemic; and not just in response to the immediate crisis, but also for the longer term.

Although COVID-19 has influenced some of mobile’s key sustainability issues, the pandemic has not created a new set of high-level, material sustainability issues for the sector. Rather, the pandemic has confirmed the priority issues already being managed by mobile operators are broadly the right ones. Added to this, none of the sustainability issues identified by the GSMA as material to the sector[2] has decreased in importance. This underlines how relevant sustainability is to the sector now and for the future.

What the pandemic has done is shed new light and urgency on issues already on operators’ sustainability agendas, and in particular, it has magnified inequalities that existed within society pre-COVID. This underlines the already clear message that all parts of society and the economy need to deliver change at scale and pace as we work towards delivering the SDGs in the Decade of Action. In short, more needs to be done, and faster.

Social focus

Our research shows the overwhelming human impact of the crisis has increased the importance of social responsibility issues more than other issue types. Among the six issues where the research delivered an overriding consensus of increased long-term priority, five were social responsibility issues.

Digital inclusion and employee health, safety and wellbeing are the issues with the most significant uplift in priority. Other social issues showing slightly higher priority levels include supply chain responsibility and supplier capacity development, child safety online, and privacy.

For digital inclusion, the research concludes digitalisation of essential services such as education and healthcare (often very rapidly in response to the pandemic) exacerbates existing digital inequalities that need to be tackled long term. The focus on vulnerable groups, such as disadvantaged students, the elderly and migrant workers, in the early stages of the pandemic will continue to be a priority for mobile operators long term, as will the focus on those in remote and rural locations.


The link to the climate crisis has also been highlighted. Climate change was already on an upward trajectory, but in response to the pandemic, there is a clear opportunity to build back better through enhanced efficiency and a greater desire to accelerate a low-carbon future.

A digital Decade of Action?

As we begin the Decade of Action the transition to a digital society continues apace. COVID-19 has only hastened the digitalisation trend, illuminating how a digitally enabled society can operate at scale. At the same time, it has also enhanced recognition that the drive towards a more digital society must be inclusive to be successful.

What is abundantly clear is that mobile technology will be at the centre of how we can tackle some of the world’s most significant challenges, including responding to the coronavirus crisis in the short term and meeting the SDGs in the Decade of Action.

Download New perspectives: How COVID-19 has shifted sustainability priorities in the mobile sector here.

Download 2020 Mobile Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals here

View our blog on the SDG Impact Report here

[1] Euronews, April 2020: Coronavirus: Half of humanity now on lockdown as 90 countries call for confinement
[2] GSMA, December 2018: The Journey to Responsible and Sustainable Leadership: A Guide to Operating Responsibly