Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

  • How to get an extra billion people online

How do you cross the digital divide to connect the remaining one billion people to the internet?

A debate at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, yesterday looked at the remaining barriers and emerging opportunities as mobile operators and phone producers pursue new customers in developing countries who are not online yet.

Reducing the price of smartphones and tackling connectivity and energy problems emerged as the main barriers — and these will require innovative solutions.

“We cannot get online without devices. The smartphone’s penetration has passed 75 per cent in the United States, while in developing countries, it ranges between two and six per cent,” said Manoj Kohli, CEO of Bhart Airtel, an Indian telecommunications company, during the debate.

“Affordable smartphones for the medium-class in these regions need to be promoted,” he said.

Ulf Ewaldsson, senior vice-president at Swedish telecoms company Ericsson, said that a decrease of just US$10 on the price of each phone would be enough to bring another 100 million people online.

But even as the price goes down, phones’ power consumption remains a limiting factor.

“In the developed world we have power sockets everywhere, but in Africa there aren’t so many — and most of them are not reliable,” explained Ewaldsson.

Mobile applications also need to be adapted for users in developing countries so they require less memory and consume less data and power, said Chris Weasler from Internet.org, a global partnership working to bring the internet to all.

But even if we do get another billion people online through mobile phones, this will add a lot more pressure on the already limited mobile internet signal transmission spectrum, several experts warned.

“The spectrum has to be proactively freed-up. There has to be very long-term planning, probably between three to five years, between governments, broadcasters and other players who use it,” says Kohli.

Taking spectrum from the military could be a way to make more spectrum available in certain countries, according to Ewaldsson.

“If governments stop making war, we would not have to use so much spectrum for the military as is allocated to it now,” he said. 

This article’s headline was amended on 27 February 2014. It previously read: How to get an extra million people online