Mobile connectivity in South Asia: Huge improvements in mobile broadband coverage bring 640 million online in last five years

Accelerated deployments of 4G networks in South Asia[1] meant that the region was the biggest contributor last year to further increasing the number of people in the global population that live within the footprint of a mobile broadband network. However, as the latest edition of The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020 report shows, the lag in users taking advantage of this improvement means that more than 1.1 billion people in South Asia do not currently use mobile internet despite being covered by a mobile broadband signal. Reducing this usage gap is now more crucial than ever, as mobile internet use is not only critical for accessing vital services and information during the pandemic, but will be a significant contributor to the recovery in economic activity.

The findings in this blog are based on the 2020 Mobile Connectivity Index and the GSMA Consumers in Focus survey[2].

South Asia is the biggest contributor to narrowing the global coverage gap in 2019

Last year, the global coverage gap – those that are not covered by a mobile broadband network – narrowed from 10% to 7% of the population, mainly thanks to substantial infrastructure investment in Pakistan and India. India now has almost 99% of its population covered by 4G. Over the last five years, the proportion of the uncovered population in South Asia has shown a significant decrease – from 44% to 6% (see figure 1). The remaining 120 million unconnected people tend to live in rural or remote areas, presenting a more difficult challenge for network expansion as costs are much higher compared to deployment in urban areas. To tackle this, it is important to promote enabling regulatory policies[3] and to support infrastructure innovation that lowers the cost of deployment.

Figure 1: Coverage and usage gap in the South Asia region

Mobile internet usage lags behind coverage in South Asia

Despite coverage improving significantly, usage remains relatively low in South Asia with one in three people accessing mobile internet. The usage gap has risen from 49% in 2015 to 61% in 2019, amounting to 1.13 billion people in South Asia. A similar trend – in which coverage has increased faster than usage – can be observed in other regions, indicating there is a lag between the roll-out of 3G and 4G networks and seeing a significant increase in mobile internet adoption.

The unconnected are disproportionately less educated, rural and women. Across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) globally in 2019, rural populations were 37% less likely than urban to use mobile internet, while women were 20% less likely than men to use mobile internet. In South Asia, the rural-urban gap is now better than the global average, as it fell from 45% in 2018 to 30% in 2019. This improvement is likely to be due to a combination of coverage expansion (especially in rural areas in India) and increased awareness of mobile internet. However, the gender gap remains high, with women half as likely as men to use mobile internet. This is much higher than the 20% average for all LMICs (see Figure 2). Closing the gender gap will be essential to reducing the overall usage gap in the region, and requires addressing the barriers that affect women disproportionately – especially a lack of literacy and digital skills; affordability; and social norms.[4]

Figure 2: Rural-urban and gender gaps in mobile internet use in South Asia, 2017-2019

Key barriers to mobile internet use in the region

Lack of awareness and literacy and digital skills: Lack of awareness is a key barrier to adoption of mobile internet. In 2019, more than 40% of Indian adults were not aware of mobile internet, compared to over 30% in Pakistan and Bangladesh.[5] For those aware of mobile internet, literacy and digital skillspersists as the main barrier for more than a third of mobile users in South Asian countries.[6] Investing in growing the awareness of mobile internet and its benefits, alongside promoting digital knowledge and skills, is important to improving access to and adoption of the mobile internet. Mainstreaming digital skills into school curricula or using agent networks to provide training are both ways to improve awareness and skills. Digital skills programmes should aim to strengthen confidence in digital technologies and educate about potential online harms.  

Affordability of devices and data: While it remains the second most important barrier for mobile users aware of mobile internet, the cost of devices and data in South Asia has significantly improved in recent years. In this region, the average cost of the cheapest internet-enabled device has dropped from 60% of monthly GDP per capita in 2015 to 21% in 2019, while the cost of 1GB of data has reduced from 2% to 0.9% of monthly GDP per capita.[7] The rise of lower-cost smartphones and the ‘smart feature phone’ category of devices on the market, notably the new generation of KaiOS phones (such as the JioPhone), improved not only device affordability but also contributed to significantly narrowing both the rural-urban and gender gaps.[8]

The introduction by mobile operators and other stakeholders of innovative pricing models for diverse customer segments can help to improve the affordability of internet-enabled devices and data services, particularly when applied alongside supportive government policies such as reducing or removing unnecessary tax and regulatory burdens. These measures are key to enabling the further digital inclusion of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in South Asia and are especially needed at a time when the socio-economic dislocations of the pandemic mean that access to and use of mobile internet are necessities for many.

For more information, read the State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020 report. For a regional view, also see the Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020 South Asia Factsheet.

[1] South Asia includes the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka

[2] The Consumers in Focus Survey has been carried out by GSMA Intelligence every year since 2017, and in 2019 included 15 low- and middle-income countries. For more information, see Consumer Insights Survey: Mapping Mobile Internet Use, GSMA Intelligence, 2020

[3] Driving the digital revolution with improved mobile coverage, GSMA, 2020

[4] See The Mobile Gender Gap Report, GSMA, 2020

[5] Awareness of mobile internet: asked to those who had never used mobile internet. They were asked if they were aware of the internet and whether it can be used on a mobile phone. GSMA Consumers in Focus survey, 2019

[6] 34% in Bangladesh, 33% in India, 45% in Pakistan

[7] Data provided by GSMA Intelligence

[8] “JioPhone by Jio” case study in Reaching 50 million women with mobile: a practical guide, GSMA, 2020

This initiative has been funded by UK aid from the UK government and is supported by the GSMA and its members. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.