Universal Internet Access, Globally, Within a Decade, Not Only is Possible; It is a Near Certainty

If you have a long enough memory, and think about what you have seen, you’ve learned at least a modicum of circumspection often is in order when assessing what “can” and “cannot,” what “should” and what “should not” be done.

You might think it is impossible that U.S. consumers someday will rather routinely be connected to the Internet at 1 Gbps. You might think it is unlikely that within about a decade, the 60 percent of people in developing regions will have routine access to the Internet at more than dial-up speeds.

But history suggests both will happen, as incomprehensible as it seems. Despite all the obvious obstacles--people cannot afford terminals, or access fees, are not literate, live too far away from backhaul facilities and Internet points of presence--universal Internet access will happen globally, and speeds will rather routinely be in in the gigabit range in the United States.

Some will loudly maintain U.S. ISPs are too greedy, too stupid, too mendacious to pull this off, or look at the difficulties in developing regions and conclude that infrastructure is too expensive and demand is too low.

Such conclusions are unwarranted, and have proven quite wrong, in similar instances, in the immediate past.

One would have to look back to the 1980s, when similar concerns would rightly have been voiced about how difficult it would be to provide basic voice communications to people--billions who had never made a phone call--around the world.

Then something unexpected happened. Around 2003, mobile penetration hit an inflection point in the developing world. Today, the lowest mobile phone adoption you are generally likely to find is in the 70-percent range. The exceptions are Myanmar, one of the least developed markets, and North Korea.

But Myanmar recently has licensed two new mobile service providers. And adoption is growing fast in Africa, one of the last continental-sized markets where mobile penetration has been lower than average.

The big point is that an apparently unsolvable problem--how to get communications to people who never could make a phone call--is close to being solved, completely. That’s a big policy problem that is solved, and was done by the normal operations of humans and companies operating in markets.

Internet access is the present challenge, and one might argue the barriers are higher. Efforts for decades have attempted to create a “$100 computer” that people in developing regions could use. None of those non-governmental organization efforts have succeeded.

But now we have commercial tablets and smartphones that are doing the job. So that problem has receded. Now the challenge is making Internet access available and affordable. That remains a problem, but not an insurmountable problem.

Most expect the same mobile networks that have enabled voice communications will enable widespread Internet communications as well, augmented in important ways by fixed or possibly other forms of access in some cases.

Nor will it take that long. The widespread adoption of mobile communications took a decade. It won’t take longer than that to achieve widespread Internet access, either. We are solving the terminal and access network problems.

People themselves will conclude they want and need the Internet, creating the demand.

To be sure, one might have wondered whether people would spend a rather high percentage of annual income to acquire phones and use them. They have.

Speeds are a subtended issue. But even in the U.S. market, where complaints abound, the history of speed increases shows a minimum doubling about every five years, and an order of magnitude increase in speeds (up to two orders or magnitude) about every decade.

To be sure, there is a difference between the typical speed tier a consumer buys, and what ISPs make available, but either way the growth is palpable.

Though it might seem improbable that typical purchased speeds could reach the gigabit level by 2020, that is indeed likely, based strictly on past precedent.

In August 2000, only 4.4 percent of U.S. households had a home broadband connection, while  41.5 percent of households had dial-up access.

A decade later, dial-up subscribers declined to 2.8 percent of households in 2010, and 68.2 percent of households subscribed to broadband service.

In other words, from 2000 to 2012, the typical purchased access connection grew by about two to three orders of magnitude.

As crazy as it seems, Internet access, and the quality of access, is a solvable problem, globally. Internet adoption rates offer hope: reasonable hope, that past trends will continue.

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