In 2012, the Internet Society conducted a study of more than 10,000 Internet users in 20 countries and found that 83% of respondents believed access to the Internet should be considered a human right. Today, more than four billion of the roughly seven billion people on Earth have the ability to get online, and that is thanks to many organizations which have taken up the cause to provide Internet access to all.
Companies like Google and Facebook are probably the most high-profile, but many of their initiatives only reach a small subset of those in emerging markets who have yet to get online. There is a growing number of people who already have the smartphones, but can’t afford the data. More than 70% of the world’s population live within reach of at least a 3G Internet signal.
Affordability, Not Access, Is Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge around Internet connectivity in emerging markets is affordability. Driven by dramatic drops in price, 1.3 billion people in emerging markets now have smartphones. By 2020, that number is expected to top three billion people, but it’s the cost of data that is prohibitive. This challenge will only continue to grow, with data consumption projected to increase six times by 2020. How do we connect the 70% who can get online but cannot afford it?.
Relative to average income mobile data is expensive. Some 85% of people in emerging markets are on pay-as-you-go subscriptions and the high cost of data discourages many users. In India, one gigabyte of data on average costs the equivalent of 34 hours of work; in the U.S. it costs only two hours of minimum-wage work.
I’ve seen first hand how access to affordable mobile services can change the lives of people. In 2006 I moved to East Africa to teach mobile-app development at the University of Nairobi. While there a severe blood shortage led to a need for blood donors. I agreed to participate, but soon found myself donating blood again and again. Why were the hospitals constantly running out of blood supplies?
The problem was not in the blood supplies themselves, but in the communication between rural hospitals and the centralized blood bank. By the time a request for blood made it from a hospital to the blood bank, the hospital was facing a severe shortage.
My students and I developed a system to enable rural nurses to text the blood supply levels to the centralized blood banks. It was an immediate success, but long-term sustainability was hindered by the cost of data to send the text. The expense prevented nurses from ultimately sending the SMS as it was a huge portion of their daily wage — we were essentially asking them to take a pay cut to use the system. But when we changed the system to automatically reimburse them for data used (plus a bit of extra data to say thanks), the nurses enthusiastically returned to the system. So, who was covering the cost? The Ministry of Health.
This discovery drove us to start Jana, and our mobile app mCent. When users open the app they are presented with sponsored content that they can engage with and use. We’re shifting the cost of data to brands, letting users download, try, and engage with apps, and in return gain free data.
Internet Access Can Increase Annual Income
Mobile operators gain an additional revenue stream, increasing their ARPU (average revenue per user). Brands benefit by increasing their footprint in emerging markets and gaining access to and engagement with people in some of the fastest-growing economies. Most importantly, users gain free access to the Internet.
When users in emerging markets are given this access great things can happen. For every 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration, GDP in emerging markets rises by 1.4%, according to GSMA research. When people living in emerging markets are connected to the Internet, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreases by a third, according to Deloitte. Access to the Internet can also increase the annual income for someone in an emerging market by between $450 and $630, an average increase of about 15%. In Africa and India, where personal incomes are lowest and increases in penetration have the potential to be highest, internet access could increase per capita income by 21% and 29% respectively.
While Facebook, Google, and others are with us on this mission to bring Internet access to the next billion, they are thinking about the problem in a different way. We believe the only way to solve the connectivity problem in emerging markets is to lower the cost of data. This affordable access can be provided by leveraging a technology that already exists, mobile phones, and offsetting the cost through sponsored data.
We firmly believe fair and open access to the Internet is a human right. Within the the next five years we are determined to get one billion people online, breaking down the financial barrier to connectivity. That’s why we named our company Jana, Sanskrit for “people.”
Nathan Eagle, a scheduled speaker at the 4YFN conference, is CEO and co-founder of Jana, which was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer in 2014. He also holds academic positions as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University and a Research Assistant Professor in Computer Science at Northeastern University.