Understanding digital content and services ecosystems

The role of content and services in boosting Internet adoption

Executive summary

Internet penetration rates in some developing countries are lagging behind others, despite the fact that online connectivity is both available and affordable. This report analyzes a key reason for this, by focusing on the role of digital content and services in the evolution and development of Internet adoption and usage. Six major content categories constitute the digital content and services ecosystem — entertainment, information, utilities (including government services), business services, sharing platforms, and communications — and the history of their progression in more mature markets is instructive in determining how to invigorate Internet adoption in countries with low penetration rates. The U.S., Germany, and South Korea provide examples of both broad similarities and individual differences in the way Internet content can evolve, such as the greater degree of government involvement in content generation in Germany and South Korea.

A data-driven model that measures the maturity of digital content ecosystems for 75 countries, capturing both the depth and variability of content, yields an index that shows the relationship between ecosystem maturity and Internet penetration for each of the countries. It indicates that the evolution of digital content ecosystems is supply-driven, suggesting the need to over-build content and services in the early stages. Entertainment and information content are the primary drivers of user growth, with utilities playing an important secondary role. Content ecosystems begin to reach a point of critical mass because of the network effect of sharing platforms. As sharing platforms and online advertising proliferate, e-commerce and other business services assume a larger role, and the ecosystem becomes economically self-sustaining.

Key stakeholders — the government, local content providers, telecom operators, and global platform providers — can play an important role in jump-starting digital content ecosystems at the early stages of evolution by investing in relevant, local content to help build a user base large enough to reach the critical mass point, which in turn will create the conditions for self-sustainability.

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Internet adoption continues to vary widely across countries. The average Internet penetration rate in Africa is 14 percent — vastly lower than the 85 percent rate in North America, according to the World Bank. Given the well-recognized role that wider Internet adoption plays in accelerating economic growth, raising Internet adoption rates is an imperative, particularly for developing countries. Barriers to Internet adoption also vary across countries. Although the lack of affordable infrastructure is considered to be a major obstacle, a lack of local, relevant digital content and services is equally important. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 34 percent of offline individuals in the U.S. mentioned that the Internet was not relevant to them.1 Eighty percent of the Wikipedia articles are written in just 28 languages, whereas 80 percent of the world’s population speaks one of 80 languages. Even the quantum of content available per user continues to be widely uneven. Akamai data show that in the U.S., page views in the media and entertainment category peak at 282 per Internet user, whereas in Africa this number dips to 32 per user — highlighting the dearth of content relevant to African users.2

Ensuring a sustainable supply of local, relevant digital content creates incentives and reasons for subscribers to get online; such content is an imperative for driving Internet adoption for the 60 percent of the global population that is not currently connected. Beyond the availability of such content, because creating and maintaining digital content continues to be an expensive proposition, it is important to understand how to ensure the sustainability of these ecosystems.

Ensuring a sustainable supply of local, relevant digital content creates incentives and reasons for subscribers to get online.


Both private and public stakeholders need to take part in developing and sustaining the digital content and services ecosystem that drives digital inclusion in a country. Governments should be proactive in creating strong public-benefit content and services, especially in the early stages of a country’s evolution of its digital ecosystem, when monetization models are absent. Both global and local content and service providers require upfront investments to build before they monetize.

The search for viewers matters at the early stages, as does allowing stakeholders to draw in the required investments. The key is to create a large base of online users, generate deep and varied content, support mechanisms for online advertising and payments, and build a solid case for businesses to invest in online commerce and capabilities. Once these elements are in place, all the conditions are set for the digital content and services ecosystem to become self-sustaining.

1 Kathryn Zickuhr, “Who’s Not Online and Why,” Pew Research Center, September 25, 2013.

2 Akamai Technologies’ Net Usage Index for media & entertainment, aggregate real-time page view (updated every five minutes), 2015.

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Bahjat El-Darwiche

Bahjat El-Darwiche

Partner, Strategy& Middle East

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