5G | Emerging Trends | ICT4SDG
October 10, 2016

2G or not 2G? Implications for the digital divide

By Lucy Spencer

An Indian government-funded project to provide 2G mobile coverage to unserved areas in India’s North-East Region received no bids from telecom operators, according to a recent Economic Times report.

An estimated INR53.36 billion (USD798 million) was made available from the Universal Service Obligation Fund to help support the roll-out, which would have helped connect some of the more than 9,000 villages currently not connected to a mobile network.

India has made rapid strides in the rollout of 3G, as well as 4G, particularly in urban areas where many operators are choosing to invest more heavily due to higher average revenue per user and lower infrastructure costs.

Yet in India – as in many other emerging markets – 2G remains important for connecting citizens and improving lives, especially in unconnected rural areas.

The big switch off

But as India continues to push for expanded 2G connectivity in unconnected areas, operators in developed LTE markets are expected to conclude 2G networks by 2020. Vodafone Australia recently announced plans to decommission its 2G network on 30 September 2017 – the last operator in the country to do so.

“India is still very much a 2G country,” Joss Gillet, Director of Data and Partnerships at GSMA Intelligence, told ITU News. “India is at a stage where it is trying to accelerate the adoption of mobile broadband, whereas if you look at Europe, US and Australia, those countries already have a very high mobile internet usage.”

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According to GSMA Intelligence, India’s mobile broadband adoption is just under 20% with LTE making up just 1.2% of that; this puts India 182 out of 222 markets. While 2G networks reach nationwide coverage, 3G networks currently cover around 80% of the population, and 4G networks cover around a third of the population.

“So the decision the operators are facing is: ‘How do I ramp up my mobile broadband infrastructure and give people access to mobile broadband services?’ ” Joss told ITU News.

Implications for global development

Mobile-broadband subscriptions in developing countries continue to grow at double digit rates, but are still far behind developed nations, at 40.9 and 90.3 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants respectively, according to the latest ITU data. Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) only have 19.4 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

Could the push towards 5G by developed countries drive a deeper digital divide? Perhaps not.

RELATED: Where does your country rank on ITU’s ICT Development Index?

Joss pointed to the potential for developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ technology as was the case with 4G, where a few countries and operators decided not to follow the typical network roadmap, bypassing 3G, for example.

“So that could be the case for 5G as well, where a number of countries are in a situation where …  they want to leapfrog any 4G advancements … and instead go for 5G.”

Lucy Spencer

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

2G or not 2G? Implications for the digital divide

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