Mobile's gift to the world: In poor countries, it's life-changing

A third of the world's population has at least basic access to the mobile Internet -- and gets a great deal of value from it

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It's an amazing stat: There are 2.3 billion mobile Internet subscribers on the planet -- one-third of the world's population. When you add desktop and laptop computers to the mix, the number of people with Internet access rises to 3 billion. If you had any illusion that mobile computing is the future, these figures should show you it is actually the present.

The data comes from a survey of 5,500 people across the globe commissioned by Juniper Networks, which of course wants to power much of those connections. But Juniper's self-interest doesn't affect what the survey shows: Those 2.3 billion people get tremendous benefit from being connected to the Internet from devices they have at hand.

The effects of that connectivity are profound:

  • 97 percent of people in developing countries say mobile Internet access has been transformative in their lives, versus 78 percent in the richest countries, including the United States.
  • 52 percent of people in developing countries say mobile Internet access has been a key change agent for how they work, versus 26 percent in the richest countries. Also, 40 percent of people in developing countries report that connectivity has improved their earnings power, compared with 17 percent in rich countries.
  • 24 percent of people in developing countries use the mobile Internet for educational purposes, versus 12 percent in the richest countries.
  • People in rich countries use the mobile Internet more for tasks rich people can do: shop (41 percent), bank (51 percent), and (increasingly) control gadgets in our homes. In poor nations, 33 percent shop via mobile and 40 percent bank via mobile. Home automation is relatively unknown in developing countries; instead, the mobile Internet focus is more on communication, research (such as on foodstuff prices, weather, and traffic), and education.

The Juniper report divides the two groups thus: Poor people use the mobile Internet for personal advancement, whereas rich people use it for personal convenience.

The bottom line: Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Koreans, Japanese, Australians, New Zealanders, and so on have had email, the Web, e-commerce, in-car navigation, and other connected technologies for a couple decades now, so we take it more for granted -- the rest of the world has not. Also, the rest of the world more strongly feels the opportunities and advantages that mobile connectivity brings.

That's all the more remarkable when you consider the state of mobile infrastructure in developing countries. Cellular networks are often 2G, less often 3G, and rarely LTE. They contend with bandwidth limitations we moved past seven or eight years ago. They have mobile connections in far fewer places, given the greater proportion of their populations in harder-to-connect rural areas and slums.

People in developing countries also use much less capable devices. An iPhone or Galaxy costs months of income -- or more -- in many developing countries and is well beyond the reach of the typical farmer, merchant, educator, or worker. These people instead rely on what we would consider crippled Android devices, old Nokia S60s, aging BlackBerrys, and homegrown OSes we've never heard of.

Thus, the significant impact of mobile connectivity on these people is even more remarkable. It's a gift that they clearly appreciate. We should, too.

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