The New Frontier of the Internet in the Developing World

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If you are part of the “developed world” (that somewhat condescending term by the great powers of the 20th century distinguish themselves from everyone else), you and everyone you know likely have access to the internet, or can get it if they try. In fact, this is practically taken for granted in much of North America, Europe, and regions of Asia. We (developees) forget that, in much of the world, internet is this brand new thing. If it exists at all! ISPs have left their mark over virtually every inch of the US and UK, among others, but a brief glance at internet statistics show that ISPs have only begun to bring in customers. The “rest of the world” has yet to be connected.

The country with the most extensive internet penetration is….Bermude? I’m surprised, but with a population only a tenth that of Baltimore, word spreads fast, I suppose. It’s not until you get to #6, the Netherlands, do you get to a country with more than 10 million residents. The first highly populous nations with above 91.5% internet access are Canada and South Korea at #’s 11 and 13, respectively. That’s more of a feat for SK, because they have 12 million more residents. So goes the list. UK #15, US #23. No surprises. It’s when you get to some of the nations with very little penetration that you really begin to see what is going to be so interesting in the next decade.

Midway down the list, with just over 100m of their 200m population connected, is Brazil, then Colombia, Egypt, China (!! at only 46%). In the 40%-or-less club, we’ve got Mexico, Nigeria, and a handful of other African nations with the population of France. Less that 30%? Thailand, Iran, Sudan; all of them heavily peopled. Beneath 20%? Lots of Africa and, most notably, INDIA! Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh round out those nations with more than 100m citizens, all with less than 20% internet availability, usually a lot less.

Back to India. That’s right, ol’ we-just-landed-on-mars India. With a population of more than 1-and-a-quarter billion. India is second only to China in terms of sheer population, and that with much less physical area in which to live. For decades, India has evoked, among other things, images of total squalor. This still exists, just as it does in any place with uncanny population concentrations, but the country is quickly improving its situation.

A decade ago, a small Indian village could not reasonably expect electricity, reliable water, a store that sold provisions, roads. These are now commonplace in most villages, even remote. It seems only natural that 2nd and 3rd tier utilities (WiFi?) would soon follow. And they are. With less than 20% of its population reached, and connectivity boasting double digit annual growth, there are enough future internet customers in India to fill more than three Americas.

Do what does this mean for Virgin Media? While the iPhone-ish devices are considered mature products, these have yet to be seen in most areas of the developing world. More than half of the world’s population can’t access Wikipedia. Many more people don’t have Facebook than do. The cultural changes that have occurred in America and UK since the internet’s arrival cannot be overstated. Imagine the changes that will happen in cultures that only recently achieved clean running water for their citizens. The world is going to change in shocking ways. And the internet is going to drive it.