There have been moments in history where the invention of new technology has completely rewired the way our society lives and works. The printing press, radio, television, mobile phones and the Internet are among these. In the coming decades, we will see the greatest revolution yet, as billions of people connect to the Internet for the first time.
Today, only a little more than one-third of the world is connected—about 2.7 billion people. It's easy to take the Internet for granted and assume most people will soon have the access and opportunity we have, but that just isn't the case. Connecting everyone is one of the fundamental challenges of our generation.
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When people have access, they not only connect with their friends, families and communities, they also gain the opportunity to participate in the global economy. Research by McKinsey & Co. in 2011 shows that the Internet already accounts for a larger share of economic activity in many developed countries than agriculture and energy, and over the previous five years created 21% of GDP growth. Access to online tools lets people use information to do their jobs better and in turn create even more jobs, business and opportunities. The Internet is the foundation of this economy.
Connecting the World
Connecting everyone in the world does more than share these benefits with billions of more people. Bringing the other two-thirds of the world online will enable them to invent and create new things that benefit us, too. If we can connect everyone, all of our lives will improve dramatically.
But this isn't going to happen by itself.
Not only do the vast majority of people have no access to the Internet, but even more surprisingly, Internet adoption is growing by less than 9% each year. That's very slow considering how early we are in its development and that this rate is only slowing further.
A common belief is that as more people buy smartphones, they will have data access. But that isn't a given. In most countries, the cost of a data plan is much more expensive than the price of the smartphone itself. For example, an iPhone with a two-year data plan in the U.S. costs about $2,000, where $500 to $600 is for the phone and about $1,500 is for the data.
In turn, the vast majority of data costs go directly toward covering the tens of billions of dollars spent each year building global infrastructure to deliver the Internet. Unless this becomes more efficient, we cannot sustainably serve everyone at prices they can afford. And unless we change this, we will soon live in a world where the majority of people with smartphones use them offline and still don't have access to the Internet.
There is a lot of research into how to deliver the Internet in completely new ways. Some of this work involves satellites, planes, lasers and beaming Internet from the sky. This research will eventually be necessary to connect everyone since some people live in remote areas where there is just no infrastructure to connect them. But this isn't the problem most people have.
In fact, almost 90% of the world's population already lives within range of an existing cellular network. For everyone in those areas, we don't need to build completely new kinds of infrastructure to help them connect. We just need to show why it's valuable and make it affordable.
The challenge for our industry will be to develop models for Internet access that make data more affordable while enabling mobile operators to continue growing and investing in a sustainable way.