GSMA: The world is getting mobile phones, but women are being left behind

Mobile phone operators have already turned their attention to the developing world, and cell phone penetration rates are rapidly increasingly as a result. However, that doesn’t mean phones are reaching everyone, in every market. Rather, there’s a gender gap emerging in low- and middle-income countries when it comes to mobile phone ownership.

Women are 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, according to a new report released today by the GSMA’s Connected Women’s program. However, that’s not the same across the globe. In South Asia, for example, a woman is 38 percent less likely to own a phone than men, although in other regions of the world the the gender gap narrows to single digits.

GSMA women report

Even within a region, though, the numbers can vary widely.

“Even though they’re 14% less likely on average [to own a mobile phone], you see there’s huge regional variances,” said Shireen Santosham, Senior Insights Manager for the Connected Women Program M4D. “In a region like Africa, Niger has a 45% gender gap. Democratic Republic of Congo has a 33%. Kenya has a seven percent, largely driven by m-Pesa. So we have to be careful about the law of averages.”

The Connected Women 2015 survey is a follow-up to the first report GSMA released five years ago on women and mobile phones. That report identified a 21 percent gender gap, but it only surveyed four countries, compared to the 11 in the 2015 update, Santosham said.

“We decided to do this new report because we knew women are underserved and, without data, we’re unsure how to fix it,” she said. “We can say on a high level that we’ve made progress.”

Cost and network quality/coverage remain the top two barriers to mobile phone adoption for women, but one thing that surprised researchers was the issue of security and harassment surrounding phones in low- and middle-income countries.

Cell phones did make at least 68 percent of the female respondents feel safe — but it can also be the number three barrier behind cost and network quality for women phone owners. Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 11.02.15 PM Women were concerned that cell phones would make them theft targets or could subject them to harassment from strangers with no way to stop it.

“I think we need to address this issue, and there are tactical things companies can do,” Santosham said “Because of the fear around harassment, young girls are not getting access.”

There’s a lot of small steps the industry can do from adding a free call blocking service to enabling remote top-ups, instead of having to visit a stall or an operator, that could increase a woman’s feeling of security.

But, it all comes back to the problem of affordability. Women across the globe tend to earn less money, and often aren’t involved or are not the ones purchasing the phones.

In India, 72 percent of males said they made the decisions to purchase their own phones, compared to 19 percent of women.

“Because women globally have less financial control often times than men, anything we do around affordability will affect woman more disproportionately than men,” Santosham said. “When we look at the differences for mobile phone ownership for men and women, it’s a complex problem between economic and cultural issues… This has to do with both poverty and issues around social norms and how women interact. When we think about tackling this problem, there’s no silver bullet. It has to do with issues around affordability.

EU digital chief tries to maintain single digital market momentum

European member states may be keen to water down current net neutrality proposals and push back against the centralization of radio spectrum policy in the EU, but new digital single market chief Andrus Ansip isn’t having any of it. In a speech on Monday, he adopted a tough stance on these issues, and on the abolition of roaming fees for those travelling within the EU. Ansip also told the member states to hurry up so the proposals can be become reality.

Ansip told telecoms providers at the GSMA Mobile 360 conference in Brussels that the concept of net neutrality “has to be solid and clearly defined.” Member states are more keen on unenforceable principles that can be interpreted differently in different countries, but Ansip noted that “if 28 countries have 28 different approaches, it makes the market even more fragmented.”

On spectrum, member states are trying to stop the Commission gathering any more powers of coordination. Ansip argued: “The more this natural resource is divided, the less efficient it is. Ideally, EU countries should be working together much more on allocating spectrum. After all, radio waves know no borders. Why should the internet? We don’t need national fragmentation of internet traffic.”

Ansip said roaming fees for travel between EU countries were “an irritant and an anomaly”. He said he “will continue to push for an end to roaming surcharges in Europe” because “they have no place in the telecoms and digital single markets that Europe so badly needs.” Member states want to see “fair use” policies inserted into current legislative proposals for allowing people to use roaming data within their domestic tariffs.

The Council of the EU, representing the member states’ governments, represents the last hurdle in the European legislative process. The debate over the Telecoms Package, proposed by Ansip’s predecessor, Neelie Kroes, is now heading into the new year. Ansip said he hoped an agreement could be reached within months. “Otherwise, I fear that we may lose momentum,” he said.

So far, the Council hasn’t even begun negotiations with the European Parliament over the package, as it must. Ansip pointed out that the Council itself had pushed for a single EU telecoms market, and suggested that the telcos should also be keen to see this creation because would aid cross-border consolidation and allow them to offer services across the EU.

“It is up to those in the market to invest in the necessary infrastructure. However, the market cannot always provide all that is needed. That’s where public authorities have a role to play,” he said. “Firstly, by providing the right and adequate regulatory environment, which we plan to achieve through the Digital Single Market strategy. And secondly, by incentivizing and leveraging more private investment.”

A single telecoms market is of course a necessary base for a single digital market. Beyond what Kroes had already proposed regarding telecoms, Ansip called for simplified rules on online purchases, an end to the geo-blocking of digital services, and the reform of Europe’s copyright rules.

NSA spies on carriers to break call encryption, report suggests

The NSA spies on the internal emails and documents of major mobile carriers and their industry body, the GSM Association, according to an article published Thursday by The Intercept.

According to the piece, the spy agency is or was running a program called AURORAGOLD, which involved targeting the GSMA in order to find or even create weak spots in carriers’ network technology. If this is the case, it may be yet another example of the foolhardy breaking of widely used security mechanisms in ways that other spies and criminals can potentially also exploit.

The GSMA’s “IR.21” documents are shared between carriers to allow customers to roam internationally between their networks. According to the NSA documents published by The Intercept, IR.21s provide valuable information about new technology that the carriers are using, helping spies to figure out how to “discover vulnerabilities,” “introduce vulnerabilities where they do not yet exist” and find threats to the spies’ existing surveillance methods.

The GSMA is also a hub for the development of new cellular privacy technology. Worryingly, the article suggests that the AURORAGOLD program may have aided NSA attempts to crack A5/3, a type of encryption for cellular communications. Earlier stories based on the Snowden leaks indicated that the NSA has already cracked the older and weaker — but widely used — A5/1 cipher.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not the NSA and GCHQ have had success in cracking A5/3 yet, but some experts are worried:

As the piece noted, the U.K.-based GSMA receives funding from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which has already had to warn companies off using one of its own security standards because Snowden’s leaks indicated the NSA had tampered with it.

GSMA spokeswoman Claire Cranton told me by email: “We are aware of the Intercept story and are currently investigating the claims made in the piece. We are unable to offer any further comment at this time.”

Franco Bernabè, chairman of carrier industry body GSMA, quits

The chairman of the GSM Association (GSMA), the body that represents the mobile operator industry, has resigned. Franco Bernabè had been GSMA chairman since January 2011, and the body’s erstwhile deputy chairman, Telenor Group CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas, has stepped up to be acting chairman ahead of an election next month. Bernabè’s departure was to be expected — he resigned as Telecom Italia chief at the end of September, after a strategy dispute with shareholders.

Roaming: the missing piece to the smartphone-Wi-Fi puzzle

Soon your smartphone will be able to connect seamlessly to your mobile operator’s Wi-Fi hotspots. But what about hotspots that your carrier doesn’t manage? It turns out the world of Wi-Fi roaming is a whole new bag of problems, but the industry has a fix in mind.