Connecting the other 3 billion to the internet

The internet has continued to evolve, and is fast becoming a platform on which basic communication and applications, both business related and others, transfer data to achieve their purpose or solve problems. As the world forges forward, transferring lots of data, applications and computing to the cloud, we can’t help but wonder how consumers in developing countries, who have very poor, albeit unusable connectivity to the internet will fare in this new evolution.

In Mark Zuckerberg’s (founder of Facebook) recent paper “Is Connectivity a Human Right,” he speaks about how only 2.7 billion people in the world today are connected to the internet, out of the estimated total 7.2 billion people in the world as reported by the United States Census Board. 5 billion of those people have mobile phones, 4 billion have feature phones (internet, cameras, applications etc.) and 1 billion have smartphones. However, we have come to find out that a lot of the developing world is skipping the PC era and moving right on to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, especially since those are getting more powerful by the day. I mean, who knew we would be making Skype calls on our mobile phones today, 5 years ago?

When it comes to internet connectivity, I assume the three major factors involved to be the medium, access and content. Medium being the device, access being the connectivity, provided by an internet service provider and content being the data or information being consumed. As we all know, the cost of the medium will continue to reduce as long as Moore’s law remains even fairly accurate, which has been the case so far, and people will continue to generate content once we give them access but the gap here appears to be the access, the sheer cost of transmitting data between the media in which the content resides. This is evident in the cost of maintaining a data plan compared to the cost of actually owning a cell phone. In the US, for example, an iPhone with a typical two-year data plan costs about $2,000, where about $500–600 of that is the phone and ~$1,500 is the data. As you go into the developing world, the cost of data plans increase 10x in some cases, while the average income and standard of living reduces 10x in some cases, leaving internet access the luxury of luxuries, for the highest of high class income earners in those economies.

Understandably so, as the cost to the consumer goes towards covering the tens of billions of dollars spent each year building the global infrastructure to deliver the internet. This becomes even more apparent in developing countries that still do not have uninterrupted power supply or underlying cable infrastructure to carry large amounts of data.

There are a few factors that Mark outlined in the paper that are the problems that need to be solved, if you will, to enable us play an active role in both getting the internet to the other 3 billion, and preparing the internet for the other 3 billion. He talks about-

  • Making significant technology and business model improvements that enable some access to the internet to either be very cheap or free for people who otherwise will not be able to afford it.
  • Decreasing the cost of land, energy, wireless backhaul and licensed wireless spectrum.
  • Informing and educating a vast majority of these people on using the internet by developing applications that solve the societal problems that they encounter on a day-to-day basis.
  • Continuing to innovate and finding ways to deliver more power in little packages i.e. cheaper phones with more capacity.

Culled from Mark’s paper- 

Why is this so important?

The internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.

Before the internet and the knowledge economy, our economy was primarily industrial and resource-based. Many dynamics of resource-based economies are zero sum. For example, if you own an oil field, then I can’t also own that same oil field. This incentivizes those with resources to hoard rather than share them. But a knowledge economy is different and encourages worldwide prosperity. It’s not zero sum. If you know something, that doesn’t stop me from knowing it too. In fact, the more things we all know, the better ideas, products and services we can all offer and the better all of our lives will be.

In a detailed analysis, McKinsey has shown that the internet now accounts for a larger percent of GDP in many developed countries than agriculture and energy. It has also accounted for 21% of GDP growth in developed countries in the past five years, increasing rapidly from just 10% over the past 15 years. About 75% of the gains are experienced by companies outside of the technology industry. And the internet creates jobs, with 2.6 new jobs being created for every job lost to gained efficiencies.

The world economy is going through a massive transition right now. The knowledge economy is the future. By bringing everyone online, we’ll not only improve billions of lives, but we’ll also improve our own as we benefit from the ideas and productivity they contribute to the world.

Giving everyone the opportunity to connect is the foundation for enabling the knowledge economy. It is not the only thing we need to do, but it’s a fundamental and necessary step.

…will be continued


Is Connectivity a Human Right? – Mark Zuckerberg

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