Connecting the Next Billion Internet Users

It took 22 years to connect two billion people to the internet. Over the next few years, that number will more than double as the global internet population swells to over four billion. This new generation of connected individuals is young, connects through mobile devices and lives in emerging markets.

While smartphone penetration is ubiquitous in North America and Europe, global smartphone penetration currently sits at only 22%. This means that close to 8 out of every 10 mobile device users are not connected to the internet. However, since 2013, smartphone sales across the globe have outpaced feature phones in sales. Analysts suggest that given the current growth rate, web-connected smartphones could become the global normwithin 2 to 3 years. Currently, Google’s Android operating system powers 78% of the world’s smartphones while Apple’s iOS operating system follows far behind, at 15%. This gap speaks volumes on Google’s strategy of developing lower-cost smartphones for emerging markets. While it would be premature to completely write off Microsoft 7 or new players like Firefox OS, given the current rate of adoption, it looks like Apple and Google could be the two key mobile computing platforms of the future.

A billion more consumers

So, that’s great news right? Another few billion people coming online in the next few years. That’s more potential downloaders for your apps through distribution platforms like Google Play and iTunes. It also means more potential viewers for your content via YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and other globally accessible web services. Angry Birds—a mobile game created by a Finnish development team—is a great example of how an unknown app can transform into a global entertainment franchise. This year, seven Angry Bird theme parks were opened in China, there is a 3D movie due to launch in 2016 and more than 10 million Angry Bird toy items have been sold worldwide. Having the globe connected through smartphones could open up enormous opportunities for content companies to repeat this kind of success.

But at what cost? Currently, if you check App Annie’s global stats for the top paid and unpaid downloads from the Google Play and iTunes stores, you will note that both lists are dominated by gaming and messaging apps. Facebook alone holds the top four spots of globally downloaded apps with Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. And while only 5% of the global population speaks English as a first language, it is estimated over half of all internet content is in English. So while billions more will be coming online over the next few years, what type of internet will they discover and in what activities will they mainly engage? Also, how can this rapid adoption of technology help to address some of the critical issues facing humanity? These are the big questions that we should be asking ourselves, and many are.

The world of digital development

The Martin Prosperity Institute and Don Tapscott’s Global Solutions Networkrecognize that “the digital revolution has enabled new networks to connect and collaborate across borders, cultures and disciplines in ways that were impossible before. These web-based networks are now proliferating across the planet and having an increasingly important impact in solving global problems and enabling global cooperation and governance.” As a result, they are conducting a series of research initiatives that “explore the potential of global web-based networks for cooperation, problem solving and governance”. USAID, the U.S. government’s leading aid agency, has launched a Digital Development Lab that focuses on “supporting the momentum behind the digital economy, but in a manner that improves lives for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.” Specifically, they are focused on “digital finance, inclusive access to digital- and mobile-based information and service delivery and the use of data collected by digital devices to improve decision-making.” While these initiatives are focused mostly in the research realm, many organizations are focusing on capacity building and training.

88mph

Mozilla (the corporation that developed the popular Firefox browser) operates a foundation that oversees its highly successful Webmaker initiative. Headquartered in Toronto, this initiative focuses on empowering individuals to become web makers instead of simply web consumers. Most recently, Mozilla has partnered with GSMA, an association of 800 mobile operators in 220 countries around the world, to launch a series of programs focused on digital literacy training, localized products and content initiatives for emerging markets. There is also the Digital Opportunity Trust, a leading Canadian social enterprise that delivers unique youth-led programs that empower people living in communities that are developing, in transition or under stress with the confidence to use technology for entrepreneurial, community, educational and personal development purposes. Launched in 2002, the organization has to date delivered programming to more than 800,000 individuals across the globe. Finally, incubators and accelerators targeting these emerging markets—such as 88mph in South Africa or 21212 in Brazil—play a key role in preparing local ecosystems for innovation.

Undoubtedly, the connection of over 2 billion more people to the internet will change the face of the world. However, the exact form that these changes will take on has yet to be written. It is through a confluence of many factors and many players that change will be written and with it the ability to not only create far-reaching products and services but also address some of the key issues facing humanity.

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The Next Billion is a three-part series examining the impact and opportunities created by the explosive growth of the connected world. It was created for the Canadian Media Fund’s Trends Site.