The GSMA’s sixth annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report includes several first-time pieces of global and regional analysis, including the number of unique smartphone users and analysis by device type
Over half (54%) of the global population – some 4.3 billion people – now owns a smartphone, according to the GSMA’s annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2023 (SOMIC).
Smartphone owners are much more likely to be aware of, and adopt, mobile internet services, as well as use it more frequently and for a wider variety of tasks. For example, of the 4.6 billion people now using mobile internet, almost 4 billion do so using a smartphone, representing just under half (49%) of the world’s population. Meanwhile, 600 million people – 8% of the global population – are accessing the internet using a feature phone.
For the first time, the SOMIC 2023 report, breaks down mobile internet connections by device type, revealing significant regional variations. The global expansion of 4G and 5G networks has paved the way for over two-thirds (69%) of smartphone owners accessing mobile broadband to be doing so on a 4G-enabled device, while 17% are doing so on a 5G-enabled device – driven largely by mature markets such as North America and East Asia & Pacific. Meanwhile, 69% of smartphones used to access mobile internet in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 33% in the Middle East and North Africa, are still only 3G-capable, meaning 2G and 3G networks remain an important source of coverage for millions of users in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
The GSMA’s sixth annual SOMIC report, published ahead of MWC Kigali 2023, analyses the latest trends in global connectivity since 2015, provides insights into mobile internet usage and barriers to adoption in LMICs, and outlines the key challenges that must be addressed to ensure everyone can connect to the internet.
Spotlight on the usage gap and the digital divide
While more people are using mobile internet than ever before – 57% of the global population – 3.4 billion people remain unconnected. The majority of those who are not using mobile internet live in areas covered by a mobile broadband network – the usage gap. This usage gap has fallen slightly from 40% of the global population in 2021 to 38% in 2022 – representing 3 billion people – but remains substantial. By comparison only 5% of those not using mobile internet live in areas without mobile broadband coverage – the coverage gap.
Regional discrepancies and a digital divide persist; for example, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia represent the regions with the least connected populations and where the usage gaps are 59% and 52% respectively. In LMICs, adults in rural areas are still 29% less likely to use mobile internet than those in urban areas, while women are 19% less likely to use mobile internet than men.
In addition, the report reveals that two-thirds of the individuals who live within areas covered by a mobile broadband network but who are not using mobile internet do not own a mobile phone, highlighting the importance of tackling issues such as handset affordability. However, even where people do own smartphones, many are still unable to use them due to barriers such as digital skills and literacy, safety and security concerns, accessibility of enablers or services, and the availability of relevant content in local languages.
The remaining third of the usage gap, representing 950 million people, consists of users who own or have access to a smartphone (350 million) or basic or feature phone (600 million), but are only using basic services like voice or SMS. Smartphone owners should, in theory, face fewer barriers to accessing the internet, given they already have a device, is often a primary barrier to using the internet.
Other key findings
• While 200 million people began using mobile internet in 2022, the growth rate at which people are adopting it has slowed in the last year, falling from 300 million in 2021 and 2020.
• Only 25% of the population in the world’s least developed countries use mobile internet, compared to 52% across LMICs and 85% across high-income countries.
• Mobile broadband coverage has remained relatively unchanged, with 95% of the global population living within the footprint of a mobile broadband network.
• 5% of the world’s population is still not covered by mobile broadband, representing almost 400 million people.
• Connectivity varies significantly between and within regions and countries, with 95% of the unconnected living in LMICs.
• For the first time, all regions now have average download speeds of at least 10Mbps, while the global average download speed increased from 27Mbps to 34Mbps.
Breaking barriers to ensure no one is left unconnected
Mobile internet connectivity delivers significant social and economic benefits to both individuals and society, helping to improve wellbeing, increase household consumption and positively impact GDP.
In recent years, efforts have been made to break down the barriers to the usage gap, while striving for digital inclusion, recognising its transformative potential for societies. While there have been notable achievements and mobile internet adoption continues to grow, the SOMIC report shows progress is slowing and that increased action is required to ensure everybody can access mobile internet.
To this end, the GSMA is calling for a greater collaborative effort from all stakeholders, including government, policymakers and the mobile ecosystem, to break the barriers to the digital divide, provide coverage for those living in areas without mobile broadband and overcome barriers to usage. Actions must be informed by an understanding of the usage gap, the needs of individuals not yet using mobile internet, the barriers they face, and the opportunities to address them.
Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA, said: “Mobile is the primary – and, in most cases, only – way that most people in low- and middle-income countries access the internet. The fact that the growth rate at which people are adopting mobile internet has slowed is worrying. Lack of connectivity will deprive billions of people of access to vital services and revenue-generating opportunities – likely impacting poorer, less educated, rural and female users disproportionately. As the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and rise in climate-related emergencies affects these groups further, there is an urgent need to accelerate digital inclusion and break down the barriers to stop the digital divide from widening further.”
Above, photo by Wendy Wei on pexels