More than ever, the Internet is connecting people to information—if you live in the developed world. According to a recent Pew survey, however, most people in many developing countries are still offline.
Broadening Internet access isn’t about building more infrastructure or selling laptops, however. Just as developing countries leapfrogged landlines with cellphones, they’ll tap the Internet on mobile connections and affordable smartphones.
In recent years, cellphones have become nearly ubiquitous in developing countries. In 16 of 24 nations in the Pew Survey, over 80% of the population owned a mobile phone. Smartphones, on the other hand, remain out of reach for most people.
But that’s changing.
In 2011, we wrote about an $80 Huawei smartphone running Android. The phone sold some 350,000 units in Kenya—where 40% of the local population lived on less than $2 a day. Since then, prices have come down a bit more. A Nokia Lumia 520 running Windows, for example, is just $60 with no contract.
And there’s a new kid on the block too.
Mozilla, maker of the Internet browser, Firefox, launched a mobile operating system last year. Firefox OS isn’t intended to compete in already established developed markets—they think the real opportunity is in emerging markets. To that end, Mozilla’s operating system is slim and grim, able to deliver bare bones functionality on low-cost chips.
Since Telefónica launched the first Firefox OS smartphone, the ZTE Open, in July of last year, Firefox OS has been picked up by three more device makers and is available in 15 markets. Now, Mozilla is collaborating with chipmaker, Spreadtrum, on a prototype Firefox OS model that would cost a mere $25.
The phone won’t have all the features you would expect of a fully-fledged smartphone, but it has the fundamental apps for video, social networking, browsing online, phone calls, and texting. Enough for folks to get their foot in the door.
In 2012, the CEOs of three major developing world mobile providers targeted $50 as the price at which more emerging markets users would pile into smartphones—and a $25 phone would shatter that mark.
Of course, smartphone adoption isn’t just about affordable devices. It’s also about being able to afford a data plan to make the device worthwhile.
Cheap data plans will have to go with cheap smartphones. Software tools to track use may also prove crucial—Telefónica, for example, offers a “cost control app” to help users make the most of data plans.
With billions of people about to come online, already fast growing mobile data traffic may explode. Globally, there are 1.47 billion smartphones (and 7 billion mobile devices). If in the next few years smartphones replace ordinary cellphones worldwide, there will be a smartphone and Internet connection for every man, woman, and child on the planet.
Why does it matter?
Cellphones help people more easily communicate with each other by voice and text. Going online opens new methods of connection. According to Pew, the vast majority of Internet users in developing countries engage in social networking. This might include fun on Facebook or professional engagement on LinkedIn.
Cellphones already allow mobile payments in remote areas. Family or friends send funds by buying airtime on each other’s accounts. Agents of mobile carriers swap cash for minutes—or minutes for cash. But might even the simplest smartphone and app enable a less complicated system?
Along similar lines, online commerce may allow village artisans to tap a global audience. A maker of traditional textiles in Rwanda or a potter in rural Peru, for example—what if more of these folks could take pictures of their work, post it to a site like Etsy, and sell directly to folks all over the world?
And then there’s the pure informational power of the Internet. Visiting news sites, answering questions on Google, accessing health information on WebMD, viewing images from NASA, or YouTube videos—activities many in the US or Europe take for granted—these may deliver education and perspective to people living in remote areas.
The Internet and mobile technology have been reshaping the way people live in the richest countries for years. But by population, these countries are in the minority. The Internet’s full global potential is only now about to be unleashed.