Digital Inclusion and the Mobile Internet Revolution

Mobile phones are the most popular and widespread form of personal technology on the planet, with 3.6 billion unique mobile subscribers and 7.2 billion connections globally1. Mobile communications profoundly impacts every facet of society, from helping people communicate through to providing access to services such as education, healthcare and financial services. The mobile internet is ushering-in the next wave of social and economic growth.

The internet has had a vital impact on society during the past 30 years, transforming the way individuals, businesses and industries function and interact.  Unfortunately, many people continue to lack access to the internet, with a large percentage of the global population lagging behind the curve. The International Telecoms Union (ITU) estimates that global internet users grew from 1.6 billion in 2008 to 2.9 billion by the end of 20142 – this accounts for approximately 40% of the global population, which still leaves 60% (approximately 4.4 billion people) disconnected from the web3.

The rise of mobile communications offers a superb opportunity to address this gap. Due to the lack of fixed broadband in developing countries, mobile phones are the primary gateway to the internet in developing regions thanks to their ubiquity. GSMA Intelligence estimates that, in 2013, the number of people using the mobile internet reached 2.2 billion, and that this figure will rise to 3.8 billion by 2020 with the bulk of the growth coming from developing countries.

The vision of the Digital Inclusion programme is to support the connection of an additional one billion people to the mobile internet.  The programme is collaborating with mobile operators, governments, broader mobile ecosystem players and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to address key barriers to mobile internet adoption. The programme launched its inaugural Digital Inclusion report at the GSMA Mobile 360-Africa event in Cape Town in November, which highlighted the following four barriers to mobile internet adoption:

Network Infrastructure & Policy

55% of the world’s population is covered by a 3G signal, but this is concentrated in urban areas4. Operators are often reluctant to expand networks into rural areas because of the associated operation and maintenance costs, coupled with lower revenues from a geographically dispersed, low-income rural population. Industry and governments have a role to play in ensuring that rural populations in developing countries are not excluded from network coverage.

The Digital Inclusion programme will support expansion of rural network coverage by promoting regulatory and technical best practice.


The mobile sector in many countries is the target of excess taxation that creates barriers to digital inclusion, especially in developing countries. Even though mobile is an essential service, it is often taxed at a substantially higher rate than other sectors. While these taxes are often imposed to meet short-term fiscal targets, they come at the cost of immediate and long-term benefits from increased access to mobile internet, and ultimately greater government revenue.

The Digital Inclusion programme will work with industry and governments to reduce the total cost of ownership of mobile internet by addressing government taxes and fees.

Consumer Barriers

The Digital Inclusion report cites illiteracy, digital illiteracy and lack of internet awareness as the key consumer barriers to internet adoption in the developing world. Building universal awareness of the internet and its benefits, and equipping people with the skills with which to use it, will take many years and effort from a wide range of stakeholders.

The Digital Inclusion programme will share best practice and learnings to support mobile operators, wider industry players and governments to implement digital literacy initiatives.

Local Content

55% of websites use English as the primary language5, even though only 5% of the global population speak English as their first language6. Local content is content or information that has a direct impact on the everyday lives of people, and can specifically address key needs and challenges in the communities where individuals live and work.

The Digital Inclusion programme will support operators and the broader ecosystem to promote locally relevant content.

For further information, please contact the Digital Inclusion programme at [email protected] or visit the Digital Inclusion section on the website.

Download the full Digital Inclusion report here.

  1. GSMA Intelligence
  3. VNI Service Adoption Forecast, Cisco, June 2014
  4. GSMA Intelligence estimate
  5. Web Technology Surveys –
  6. Ethnologue