The Next Billion: Expanding the internet in developing nations

Record numbers of people are now using the internet, but more than half of the world’s 7.1 billion are yet to be connected.

An increasingly saturated market in the west is driving the big internet companies to reach out and connect ‘the next billion’ – those people in developing economies on the cusp of becoming the next wave of online service users.

It is estimated that over 3.2bn people are now connected to the internet, up 300m on the end of 2014. The big question facing service providers and content providers alike is how to sustain growth in connectivity – which has averaged 200-300m people per year over the last ten years. Room for growth in western markets is diminishing as the population becomes almost fully subscribed, and the need to satisfy the demands of investors is leading providers to target developing markets as the key to maintain this growth and deliver returns for shareholders. But in regions where infrastructure is limited, or in many cases non-existent, what are operators and companies doing to help connect ‘the next billion’, and can services be delivered in this more restrictive environment?

The relative cost of PCs or laptops, when compared to smartphones or tablets, means mobile devices have become the natural choice for accessing the net in developing markets. Fast mobile data connections rather than fixed line broadband will be the means of connecting the majority of new users in regions of Asia and Africa, with half of sub-Saharan Africa’s billion-strong population expected to have access to the internet by 2025. In the medium-term, solutions such as Facebook’s Aquila drones and Google’s Project Loon balloon system are looking to fill the gap, providing some infrastructure for mobile telecoms and accelerating the growth in connections. 

However, lack of infrastructure is only part of the challenge, with the cost of getting online remaining a huge barrier for many. Facebook in particular is making significant efforts to counter this via its Internet.org initiative’s Free Basics service, a zero-rated web access offering currently available in 37 countries across the globe.

Free Basics provides stripped down internet access to services including news and weather apps, along with Wikipedia and Facebook. Facebook claims it wants to help more people access the internet, but has faced criticism that it creates bias by only allowing certain websites or apps. Critics argue that this limits the freedom of information and communication that has allowed the internet to be the transformative force that we know today, creating a “poor internet for poor people.”

Zero-rated access is one way to getting people online, but 3G connectivity remains a prerequisite. However, innovative services such as M-Pesa mobile money demonstrate that an internet connection isn’t the only means of empowering people through technology. Could SMS-based services provide a pragmatic approach to connecting more people who can’t afford or don’t yet have access to the internet, and what positive impact could digital services have on their lives?

Facebook, again, is one company exploring increased connectivity options through existing infrastructure. It runs ‘2G Tuesdays’ for its developers, where they have the option to access Facebook on a simulated 2G connection for an hour, giving them a better understanding of the user experience on a slower connection. The theory is that this insight will allow developers to streamline their services and improve accessibility under these conditions.

The GSMA is also taking positive steps to find new uses for existing infrastructure. Its Mobile for Development programme includes initiatives to improve utilities, disaster response, health and agriculture. What is key, however, is that this push recognises that while existing infrastructure is limited, it should not be a barrier to providing good services.

One example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, is the SMS-based iCow service which provides tips and guidance to small dairy farmers, with further features such as cow-tracking available. The service is aimed at improving on rudimentary livestock management to help farmers produce more milk. Other SMS-based services improve access to emergency healthcare, while stories delivered via SMS have helped to improve levels of literacy in Papua New Guinea.

The benefits of using SMS for this type of service is clear: the ubiquitous nature of SMS means every mobile device can receive a text, and the costs of sending one are very low. Unlike zero-rated internet access like Free Basics, there is no barrier to the types of service that you can access – users aren’t locked into specific service providers. 

The reliability and speed of SMS also work to its advantage. For service providers, the immediacy offered means that the consumer can get the service whenever they need it – essential for immediate feedback or conversion rates – which, with iCow, farmers will rely on for management of their cattle.

Even as some new internet users get online, SMS can have a role to play in keeping them connected. For many, opportunities to access the internet may not come every day. SMS can act as a bridging technology, alerting users when they have received an important email, or links to crucial public information that can be later viewed in more detail via the internet.

Ideally, in the long term, fast and cheap internet access will be universally available. In the meantime, initiatives maximising the potential of traditional communication channels  will be key in ensuring billions of people stay informed and access vital services while internet access is either intermittent or completely absent.

Connecting the next billion doesn’t exclusively have to happen using the internet. By using existing infrastructure in more innovative ways, traditional mobile phones can have a role to play in improving people’s lives and countries’ economies. Streamlining services to get the most out of more primitive connections will be essential to connecting this new wave of people, and can ultimately result in a captive market of new internet users that already trust and use digital services. 

Marko Skomersic is the Chief Solutions Officer at HAUD.