The cost of smartphones is still a big barrier to the spread of Internet access in emerging markets, but state-backed projects in countries like Malaysia are helping more people get online.

Handing someone a device is "the ultimate last mile" in connectivity, Suresh Sidhu, chief corporate and operations officer at Malaysian mobile operator Celcom Axiata, said at CommunicAsia on Tuesday. Digital inclusion "extends beyond the connectivity" to the device, he said.

There have been many well-documented programmes throughout the world in recent years to distribute laptops and netbook PCs to rural areas, schools and so on, and Malaysia is no exception. However, the country has taken this type of inclusion to the next step with a scheme to provide smartphones to young people.

A few hundred thousand young people have been provided with "roughly a US$70 subsidy…in order to buy their first smartphone," Sidhu said.

This, and other projects designed to improve Internet access - such as the establishment of rural broadband centres, for example – are funded through the universal service fund to which all operators contribute.

Smartphone penetration is the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving Internet access, Sidhu said.

Smartphones must be disseminated "as far into the population as possible," he added, noting that these devices will be the first and maybe only Internet device for certain groups of people.