Today’s connected world offers infinite possibilities. The rapid pace of technological change and the impact of market forces are driving the evolution of the digital economy. By the end of 2018, 5.1 billion people around the world subscribed to mobile services, accounting for 67% of the global population. In 2018, almost 300 million people connected to mobile internet for the first time. With an average annual growth rate of 1.9% between 2018 and 2025, this will bring the total number of mobile subscribers to 5.8 billion (71% of the population).
In 2018, mobile technologies and services generated 4.6% of GDP globally, this amounts to $3.9 trillion of economic value added. The mobile ecosystem also supported almost 32 million jobs and made a substantial contribution to the funding of the public sector. By 2023, mobile’s contribution will reach $4.8 trillion (4.8% of GDP) as countries around the globe increasingly benefit from the improvements in productivity and efficiency brought about by increased take-up of mobile services.
Clearly access to mobile – and equally importantly, the mobile internet – is one of the key drivers of economic growth. This is a huge and transformative evolution in the way in which we live, interact, create, do business; providing individuals with the means to communicate instantly and respond quickly in any given situation.
We are not, however, at a point where we have universal mobile access, and many obstacles exist to its availability, some of which reside in the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern the functioning of the telecommunications sector. It is important, therefore, that as we acknowledge the powerful impact that mobile plays in delivering economic growth and opportunity, we take stock of the role of government in encouraging and enabling further investment from service providers, ultimately supporting innovation and digital inclusion.
Firstly, to enable economic growth, mobile has to be available, which requires significant investment in networks and infrastructure. In my opinion, there are a number of steps that government can take to encourage this investment, including:
- the provision of technology neutral spectrum licences;
- the production of a spectrum roadmap that outlines when spectrum will be released to help operators plan investment;
- the assignment of additional mobile spectrum, particularly in the digital dividend bands;
- the reduction of spectrum costs and coverage obligations on sub-1GHz assignments; and
- allowing service providers’ full scope in passive and active infrastructure sharing.
All of these steps promote efficiency, encourage quality, and incentivise service providers to deliver the widest possible mobile broadband coverage.
Secondly, with price remaining one of the biggest barriers for consumers in low and middle-income countries, services have to be affordable. However, as mobile consumers and operators are subject to a substantial tax burden increasingly driven by sector‑specific taxes, reforming sector-specific taxation and fees should be considered, including:
- the removal of sector-specific taxes on both consumers of mobile services, on devices and on mobile operators; and
- aligning mobile taxation with that applied to other sectors and with the best practices recommended by international organisations such as the World Bank and IMF.
Thirdly, the consumer needs the skills to engage with mobile technology and must have full trust in its safety and security. In particular, there is a need for smart data privacy laws that provide effective protection for individuals, whilst at the same time providing organisations with the freedom to operate, innovate and comply in a way that makes sense for their business and can create positive outcomes for society.
Finally, relevant and local content plays a hugely significant role in boosting participation and adoption. Giving users the necessary skills to become digitally engaged and providing digital training and facilities to promote the development of a local content ecosystem, will enable local entrepreneurs to set up websites or develop apps that meet local needs.
As we strive towards a more connected world, governments and regulators have to put in place policies that address these enabling factors and help realise greater mobile adoption. If network operators, regulators and policymakers can work together, this will create a positive framework for investment, and make significant steps towards enhancing the mobile experience of those already connected and extend mobile access to the unserved.
I look forward very much to discussing these points, and hearing the opinions of my fellow panellists from across the industry, in the Forum debate “Bridging digital divides through an integrated approach” at ITU Telecom World next week!
Note: this blog post is part of a series of opinion pieces from the speakers of the Forum programme at ITU Telecom World 2019. Join the conversation onsite in Budapest or via twitter by #ITUWORLD.