The latest data from the GSMA’s annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report reveals that while mobile broadband networks now cover 95% of the global population, less than half are actually connected and using mobile internet. This gap between network coverage and adoption underscores a persistent digital divide even as mobile technology continues its rapid spread.

The report finds that of the estimated 5.3 billion people covered by mobile broadband networks globally, only 4.6 billion are mobile internet users. This means over 3 billion people have network coverage but remain unconnected. The majority of these unconnected individuals live in low- and middle-income countries, especially in rural areas and among marginalized demographic groups like women.

Affordability, lack of digital skills, and shortage of locally relevant content and services emerge as key barriers preventing broader usage. While network build-out progresses steadily, converting coverage into meaningful connectivity for all requires addressing these demand-side challenges. As the GSMA Director General Mats Granryd summarized,

“Connecting the unconnected will be much harder than covering the uncovered.”

The risk as mobile internet becomes increasingly critical for access to information, services, and economic opportunities is that existing inequalities are reinforced. Those without the means or know-how to take advantage of connectivity fall even further behind. Proactive policies and private sector partnerships are essential to promote digital skills development and access to affordable devices and data, or else network coverage alone will fail to bridge digital divides.

GSMA’s annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity shows digital divide
Credit: GSMA’s annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report

The Slowing Curve of Mobile Internet Adoption (Spoiler: we are not growing exponentially)

While mobile internet usage continues to grow, the rate of adoption is slowing down globally. At the end of 2022, some 57% of the global population (4.6 billion people) were using mobile internet — up from 35% in 2015. Although 200 million more people started using mobile internet over this past year, this represents a clear slowdown compared to the 300 million new users added in both 2021 and 2020.

Just over three quarters of 2022’s growth came from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where 95% of those still unconnected reside. But even accounting for developing world growth, the overall pace of new mobile internet subscriptions has decelerated. Expanding adoption faces affordability and digital literacy barriers requiring time and coordinated effort to overcome.

This plateauing adoption curve signals that simply relying on continued technological diffusion will not close digital divides. Targeted policy support and private sector engagement will be essential to restart momentum and avoid leaving marginalized communities even further behind. The low-hanging fruit of mobile internet growth is gone — ensuring truly inclusive connectivity now depends on addressing inequality’s systemic roots.

GSMA’s annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report shows digital divide
Credit: GSMA’s annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report

Inclusivity, education, and opportunities

As the report makes clear, connecting the unconnected will require the global community to move beyond celebrating the milestone of 95% network coverage. Bringing the other half of the world online necessitates confronting digital inequality’s multifaceted barriers — it is not just an issue of network deployment but of ensuring technology’s opportunities are genuinely inclusive.

Achieving genuine inclusivity means ensuring marginalized groups have the education and opportunities to take full advantage of connectivity. This requires investing in digital literacy programs targeting women, rural populations, and other demographic segments less likely to be online. It also means making content and services available in local languages and relevant to local needs.

Connectivity opens up new economic potential, but making this potential reality for all depends on equipping people with the skills to leverage technology. That is why policy initiatives addressing the digital divide increasingly focus on skills training and emphasizing inclusion in STEM education. Governments, NGOs, and businesses must collaborate to promote programs getting women, minorities, and developing communities engaged as technology creators themselves rather than just consumers.

In the end, access to mobile broadband infrastructure represents only the baseline requirement. The real test is whether groups historically excluded from prior technological transformations can actively participate in shaping the digital economy’s emerging opportunities. With targeted education and capacity building, digital inclusion and inclusive growth can reinforce each other — driving both empowerment and innovation. But without conscious efforts to make connectivity truly inclusive, existing divides are at risk of widening rather than closing.

Cover photo credits: Photo by Ben Kusik on Unsplash