The GSMA, a mobile industry organization, predicts that mobile Internet will help connect half the world's population by 2020, when the globe is supposed to host 7.7 billion people. For many people, a smartphone will be the only way to connect to the Internet. The number of users in the developed world will rise from 700 million to 800 million, but in developing countries, the number will double from 1.5 billion to 3 billion connected users.
As impressive as that number is, the road to connecting 1.5 billion people is full of obstacles. For many people, an Internet connection simply isn't affordable; it can cost money they need for more basic needs. Sufficient carrier and Internet infrastructure is another major obstacle.
This year, I attended Mark Zuckerberg's keynote at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) here in Barcelona. At that time, everyone was asking about Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp and how that was going to impact business and privacy. But Zuckerberg was focused on "connecting everyone in the world" and how Facebook was working to make that goal possible.
Facebook has been doing a few things to get more people connected, especially in developing countries. One program is Facebook on SIM, which involves partnering with selected cellular carriers to embed basic Facebook functionality on SIM cards for basic feature phones. The service works without cellular data, using the SMS service. Users can send and receive messages, update their status, and upload small pictures. The idea is to give potential smartphone buyers a glimpse of the Facebook possibilities on a mobile device.
The second program, also working in selected markets, is free cellular data for Facebook, up to a certain limit. In this way, the social network signs up more users on basic smartphones, hooks them up to apps, and helps cellular carriers get more paying customers when the "free" data allowance runs out.
This program has been heavily criticized. Chile and other countries have banned it, because it is against their net neutrality laws. A similar program in some countries offers free rides on WhatsApp and Twitter apps.
Providing free data access to some apps could be attractive, but it is no more than a marketing trick to "hook" people online, so they want more and start paying monthly fees. The better solution for many people is try to connect to some free WiFi hotspots, but those are widely available only in developed markets, where most people already have data plans.
During a recent visit to Morocco, I couldn't find any WiFi access points except in the hotel and some expensive cafes and restaurants -- places that most Moroccans can't afford. Also, the infrastructure of the "wired" Internet is extremely poor, and the bandwidth is very limited. If the only way to get online is through a cellular carrier, then someone has to pay for it.
Another big expense for the next billion users is the smartphone. There are several models available for less than $100, but their features are limited. Moreover, $100 can be six months' worth of salary in some developing countries, such as Zimbabwe,.
However, there are some promising efforts aiming to address this problem. One is the $25 Firefox Spreadtrum, which has a 3.5-inch display, WiFi, 2G/EDGE connectivity, a basic camera, and a SD card slot. Another one is Samsung's Tizen phone. According to sources, the phone -- due to launch in India this month -- likely will have a 4-inch screen and dual SIMs with a 3.2-megapixel camera and 512 MB RAM, and it will be affordably priced.
And Google's Android One program includes several phones made by different manufacturers that are already selling in India and soon will be available in Eastern Europe with a price of about $90.
Even with more affordable phones, though, carrier and Internet infrastructure is a big issue for mobile Internet growth. In the US, some parts of Asia, and Western Europe, we are already experiencing service issues due to network capacity, especially in large cities.
What would happen in a place such as Cairo if the number of smartphone users were to triple in five years? Without big investments in connectivity, 3G/4G cells, and data centers, most local carriers would not be prepared to handle the explosion of data usage by so many devices.
At the same time, those new users would not be able to afford the monthly fees paid by subscribers in developed countries, so it will be a challenge for carriers to improve the infrastructure. But connecting half the world could bring new opportunities, improve education and services, and hopefully raise the quality of life of billions of people.