Improving the affordability and accessibility of the mobile internet

For the impoverished, the displaced, the homeless and other vulnerable groups, digital services can be a lifeline, providing access to valuable information, welfare programmes, jobs, healthcare and financial services. But to get online, people need affordable handsets and data plans, as well as access to enabling infrastructure such as electricity and often a formal ID to meet SIM registration requirements.

Mobile operators and their partners are supporting individuals to overcome these barriers and access the mobile Internet and the life-enhancing services that come with it.

For example, in the U.S., Sprint has donated mobile devices to one million low-income students. In Kenya, good quality mobile devices are available at an affordable price (less than US$40) through Safaricom’s and Google’s ‘Maisha Ni Digital’ proposition, which also features a data bundle and a ‘how-to’ guide on the usage of basic mobile internet services.

For people who have been forced to migrate, digital services can help them adapt to their new environment, acquire new skills and build new lives. To that end, the Vodafone Foundation has created a digital ‘classroom-in-a-box’ solution that brings electric power and internet connectivity to classrooms in refugee camps, as well as tablets, a projector, a speaker and online educational content. It has established 36 of these “Instant Network Schools” in eight refugee camps in Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, benefitting more than 86,000 refugee students and 1,000 teachers.

Reaching out to different groups
One of the biggest digital divides is that between men and women. Recognising this gap, mobile operators in low- and middle-income countries are increasingly focused on bringing more women online. For example, in Rwanda, Airtel has deployed female agents to help attract more female customers, while Robi in Bangladesh has rolled out a monthly smartphone bundle programme with preferential rates for women. Robi says half of the customers who have taken up the offer upgraded from a feature phone to a smartphone. Furthermore, data usage has increased significantly. For those upgrading from 3G to 4G, data usage grew three-fold, while a 2G to 4G upgrade prompted a sevenfold increase in data usage.

Another barrier preventing people from registering to use mobile services can be the need for a formal ID. The World Bank estimates one billion people, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, still lack formal identification. In Pakistan, mobile operator Telenor is trying to get to the root of this problem. Through a partnership with UNICEF, it has digitally registered more than 780,000 births with the public authorities in Pakistan. These children will now have access to education, healthcare and emergency services, and are less at risk of human trafficking, child labour and other abuses.

Mobile operators are also taking steps to make services more accessible for people with disabilities. In Turkey, Turkcell offers the ‘My Dream Companion’ platform for people with visual impairments. As well as providing audiobooks, it enables users to listen to news and other valuable information, such as weather updates and transport recommendations.

All of the initiatives outlined in this blog have one thing in common – they are driven by the growing recognition that expanding digital inclusion is good for both individuals and society as a whole. By bringing more refugees, marginalised women, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups online, mobile operators are reducing the potentially divisive chasm between the digital haves and the digital have-nots.