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Lack of affordable devices keeps 3.4 billion people from connecting to nearby mobile networks

The news: The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s 2021 State of Broadband report found that 3.7 billion people are not connected to the net—even though 85% of them live within range of a mobile network. This finding underscores the need for public policy to shift from focusing on connectivity to ensuring access to affordable devices and services, per The Register.

What this means: The State of Broadband Report reveals that while global internet access and adoption has made progress, greater efforts are needed to provide last-mile access, especially in developing countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • The report cites how pandemic-related shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 highlighted the need for a robust and accessible communications infrastructure.
  • While the global internet user penetration rate has reached 51%, only 19.5% of people in the least-developed countries have access.
  • Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, said, “Digital technologies and services are still out of reach, unaffordable, irrelevant, too complicated to use, or not secure enough for far too many people around the world."

The problem: Previously, the lack of broadband and wireless infrastructure was believed to be the key obstacle to greater adoption. But the high cost of smartphones and corresponding services is the real sticking point.

  • The average selling price of new smartphones from 2016 to 2021 was $317, per Statista. Even used 4G-LTE-capable handsets are priced well beyond the budget of lower-income households—not to mention costly mobile voice and data plans. 
  • Possible solutions outlined within The State of Broadband Report include a commitment from Vodafone to embark on a pilot project on “device affordability.”
  • One option Vodafone has considered includes doubling down on 4G by recycling the spectrum used by older 2G connections.

What’s next? The findings of the 2021 State of the Broadband report underscore the urgency of making more affordable smartphones and services available to the world’s least-developed countries. 

  • The trend toward ever more expensive premium models makes this a challenge for smartphone makers. But it could also give them the opportunity to develop entry-level devices to help billions of people connect.