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Modern telecommunication services allow billions of people to connect, but some groups in society struggle to access the benefits of this.

The poor can have difficulties accessing communications because of affordability. Mobile operators have been working for many years to make services affordable, and constantly growing penetration rates are indicative of continuing progress (see table 11). This is aided by low-cost tariffs, falling prices in basic handsets and smartphones, and the increasing availability of second-hand phones. 

As well as basic connectivity, we are bringing new value-added services to customers, many in emerging or transitional economies, often free-of-charge. Our BUs are providing low-cost or free access to internet services through a number of channels and options. We continue to grow our partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation to provide free Wikipedia access to VEON (former VimpelCom) customers. Through Wikipedia Zero, mobile customers have free access to the mobile version of Wikipedia with a lightweight, text-only fast version of the site. At the end of 2015, VEON (former VimpelCom) was the world’s largest supporter of Wikipedia Zero with the service available to over 180 million customers across Algeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

In Pakistan, we continue our partnership with Opera Software ASA, and OLX, where we offer customers a basic package of free internet access – the only price being an initial exposure to advertisements before browsing can start. Our VEON (former VimpelCom) brands continued to offer 0.facebook.com, where customers have the unique opportunity to stay online with their friends using Facebook from their mobile phones free of charge. We are open to innovative bundling and pricing of internet services for our customers, but do not take any approach that is discriminatory. It is in our commercial interests to enable as many people as possible to access the mobile internet and give our customers a wide range of choice. We structure our offering accordingly. 

The development of our device portfolio is a key pillar of our commercial strategy and is managed through a steering committee chaired by our Group CEO and other senior leaders from HQ and our businesses. From our research, the price of smartphones is the most significant barrier to accessing the benefits of mobile data services and so the delivery of affordable smartphones is our main focus. Commercial interests in increasing data usage very much align to helping to address this key element of the digital divide.

Smartphone penetration across our markets is 31%, ranging from over 50% in our most mature markets to 12% in markets where price remains a significant barrier and high speed networks are still a relatively new phenomenon.

Our range of affordable smartphones and tablets continues to grow, and these are either ownbranded, or co-branded with selected vendors. In 2015, we shipped 0.6 million ‘affordable’ devices, which were priced significantly below mainstream device market prices. We have committed to selling more than four million smartphones in 2016, including one million own-branded and co-branded smartphones in a price range from USD30 to USD120. We procure ultra-low cost phones (non-smartphones) through our BUs.

Improving access to the internet for economically disadvantaged people is also supported by local initiatives such as introducing local languages to Google Translate, and helping develop basic literacy.

As well as facing economic issues, people with eyesight or hearing problems, or dexterity issues can also have difficulties accessing services.

Special services for people with disabilities

Beeline Russia has a particular focus on developing assistive technologies and services for people with reduced capabilities, and elderly people. Initiatives include: 

  • In 2014, becoming the first Russian operator with a sign language service in retail units. Marked with an ‘ear’ sign, three shops offer these services in Moscow, and similar services have been launched in St. Petersburg-based sales and customer service offices as well. This pilot project offers information services, as well as location and navigation support for sight-impaired and other mobility-challenged individuals
  • Supporting the international M-Enabling Summit Russia 2015 conference, the first time it had been held in Russia 
  • Since 2006, offering a special price plan for people with hearing disability, and in 2011-12 launching free mobile access to ‘zero zones’ in the internet. Beeline also provides a special price option ‘ Message’, developed for people with hearing and visual disabilities. It is based on research conducted with the Russian Society of the Deaf (RSD) and Russian Society of the Blind (RSB) cultural-sport rehabilitation complex
  • Beeline has also been a long-term partner of the Peace & Love festival, specifically for people with hearing impairment. 

In addition, in Kazakhstan, we provide a free internet connection to a library for visually impaired people in Shymkent which is accessed by more than 5,000 people in the region.

Building the digital skills of smartphone users

Although some customers can afford a smartphone, they may lack the confidence or digital skills to make full use of the functionality. In Eurasia, five of our markets are aiming to overcome this with the launch of the Beeline ‘Start’ app in September 2015. This is a starter kit that highlights the best apps to help them get the most out of the digital world and introduces them to the most popular apps and digital services in their country, as well as Beeline’s customer self-care app, ‘My Beeline’. 

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