By the end of this series, you’ll not only have a solid grasp over the digital trends transforming your life today, but also the ones coming out tomorrow that will make your grandchildren think you were born alongside the dinosaurs. Ballsy statement, I know.
As you read on, remember this overarching theme: The internet is a tool to more efficiently allocate resources and communicate with others—but boy, does that definition cover a lot of ground.
From godlike search engines and virtual assistants to the day we stop using smartphones and start plugging into a Matrix-like, global hive mind, this series is about to take you on a wild ride. The craziest part, however, is how possible everything you’ll read actually is—and we’ll show you why.
But before we dive head first into the future web, it’s important we address the fact that the majority of our world’s population haven’t even experienced the Internet.
The Internet is far from mainstream
The Internet is over two decades old and while we may feel it’s omnipresent, the reality is that it’s far from being mainstream. Of the 7.3 billion people in the world (2015), 4.4 billion don’t have access to the Internet. That means a majority of the world’s population has never laid eyes on a Grumpy Cat meme.
As you’d expect, the majority of these unconnected people tend to be poor and live in rural regions that lack modern infrastructure, such as access to electricity. Developing nations tend to have the worst web connectivity; India, for example, has just over one billion people lacking Internet access, followed closely by China with 730 million.
(This Washington Post chart, below, lists the countries with the lowest Internet penetration.)
Why does this matter? Well, because it represents over half the world being left out of two decades worth of big and small social, financial, business, education, and government improvements the web has made available to more developed nations.
The Internet’s creep into the developing world will bring with it sweeping change and accelerate economic development. How will it do this? To what extent? We’ll cover that shortly, but first, let’s review the innovative ways the private and public sectors plan to finally connect the poorest billion.
Tactics to reach the last billion
While many of us complain about Internet speeds ruining our Netflix and chill night in, much of the world’s population complains about not being connected, period. At a physical level, the traditional infrastructure costs behind improving Internet speeds in developed regions, as well as trying to spread it to remote regions are staggering. But a variety of new initiatives are now being planned and experimented with to bridge that gap in cost-effective ways.
Below is a short list of how and when the world’s poorest will finally join the online community, ordered from small to global scale Internet delivery schemes:
Fiber optic expansion. The backbone of the Internet is composed of fiber optic cables that run across continents and beneath oceans. They are the physical links that connect our digital world, and just as they’ve done for the last two decades, their network is set to grow—but not as you’d expect.
At this point, most of the world’s dense and relatively wealthy population centers are wired into the web, leaving very little financial incentive for continued, expensive fiber optic investment. However, to even out the economic disparity between urban and rural taxpayers/voters, politicians across the world are investing public money into new fiber optic initiatives to connect the rural poor. For example, India’s new Digital India Initiative is set to bring 600 million rural citizens from across 250,000 villages online by 2017 through publicly-funded fiber optic investment.
Wireless fiber. Just as plans for expansive fiber optic cables are implemented, a new technology (2016) called Wireless Fiber has recently been introduced that may offer gigabit level connection speeds without the need to lay costly Internet cables. This tech essentially sends web data over high-frequency airwaves, similar to how Internet service providers provide data to your smartphone. As regulations for this tech as established, it could spell the end of future fiber optic installations, while also expanding gigabit level web access to those living in more rural regions.
Novel Wi-Fi delivery. Above ground, Wi-Fi connectivity has increasingly become an important extension of the physical Internet. Luckily for non-hipster types, public Wi-Fi access will no longer be limited to the local coffee shop. Cities across the developed world are investing in free Wi-Fi connectivity for their downtown cores, recognizing the economic benefit increased connectivity brings.
And some of these projects are pushing the ingenuity envelope. New York, for example, partnered with Google to convert 10,000 of the city’s old phone booths into ad-supported Wi-Fi pylons. Meanwhile, startups like Veniam are testing the idea of converting the majority of cars and public transportation vehicles within a city into moving Wi-Fi hotspots.
In addition to these creative initiatives, advances in Wi-Fi technology, such as local mesh networks and variations of the ProxyHam, that provide distributed and private web access to the masses continue. Such innovation has proven handy for those looking to fight the system from within not-so-friendly countries.
On a related note, a related technology, Li-Fi, was recently tested with early results showing that it's 100 times faster than Wi-Fi. This tech would be yet another option to replace landline-based Internet connection. And should this technology prove itself to be scaleable by 2020, then replace every mention of Wi-Fi above with Li-Fi.
Connectivity from the clouds. Internet delivery is now being tested in the skies. Solar powered drones, like Google’s Titan project, may one day swarm the skies at far higher altitudes than commercial aircraft, beaming web access to remote regions below. Meanwhile, more publicized Google initiative, Project Loon, hopes to beam Internet access from carefully controlled balloons floating in the stratosphere. While not as ambitious as the following scheme, the relatively low cost of these projects could lead to faster market penetration among poorly connected regions.
Internet from space. When we think of the final frontier, the exploration of Mars and recent discoveries of exoplanet probably come to mind long before Internet access, however, space really is the final frontier of Internet delivery. It’s already a growing facilitator of global Internet traffic thanks to satellite networks like the Iridium constellation, and a variety of private companies are looking to build their own space-based networks, which would provide truly global Internet coverage without the need for terrestrial cables.
The top contenders for this project are Iridium’s Iridium NEXT network, Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne programme, and SpaceX’s as yet unnamed satellite program. SpaceX’s more ambitious program plans to launch a constellation of 700 low-cost satellites into orbit to provide low-cost, global Internet availability.
Being connected isn’t just about wires and Wi-Fi
Having Internet access doesn’t make a person an Internet user. As explained in our Future of Computers series, older generations have a more difficult time using the Internet due to their lack of experience and understanding of the technology and its interface. This difficulty will be magnified among the older generations living in regions suffering from a chronic lack of infrastructure and poor education.
Ultimately, being able to use a new gadget requires not just access or ownership, but a mental understanding of what the gadget is, as well as years of experience using older versions of it. Basically, it’s far easier for someone to learn how to use the Internet when they first grew up learning how to read and write on paper, then transitioned to a typewriter, then upgraded to a web computer, than it is for a person who was never taught to read and write to begin with. That’s why children who aren’t limited by ingrained mental models and habits, tend to pick up on all this tech stuff faster than adults.
Out of this reality, you’ll see governments from developing nations doubling down on basic education and computer literacy in lockstep with their Internet infrastructure investments to ensure the Internet’s economic benefits truly reach the rural poor.
Smartphones lead the Internet’s growth
All this talk about how the Internet is going to reach the poorest billion sidesteps the question of what device they’ll use to access it. Access to electricity is spotty in many regions throughout the developing world and access to landline Internet is non-existent. Moreover, average incomes are usually far too low to make upscale desktop, laptop, or even tablet computers affordable.
This is where the smartphone steps in. Basic models are relatively low cost, use modest amounts of energy, and can easily connect with the new wireless Internet sources outlined above. In fact, sales of smartphones are exploding in the developing world, driving Internet usage.
That’s not to say the same isn’t true of the developed world. Growth in the higher-end smartphone market is accelerating at an equally fast clip due to a number of developments:
- Competition. China-based Xiaomi is now going head-to-head against Samsung and Apple globally.
- Universality. Standards and carrier plans are becoming multinational. For example, Europeans will no longer have to pay roaming charges for using their phones anywhere inside the EU.
- 5G. At 20GBs per second, you’ll soon be able to download an ultra high-def movie in 10 seconds and also project live stream holographic content. The first 5G network will debut in Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics.
- Deep usage penetration. Smartphones now outsell personal computers four to one. In the US alone, half the population owns one and by 2020, 80 percent of the population will carry one in their pocket or purse.
The coming Internet gold rush
Continued investment into the Internet’s growth may appear to be driven by Western tech giants hunting for large, untouched markets, and while that may be partially true, it’s not the whole story.
Remember: the Internet is a tool to more efficiently allocate resources and communicate with others. Its growth will, directly and indirectly, combat world poverty and raise living standards. ‘How?’ you ask.
Access to markets. Let’s use food as our example. The fact that many parts of Africa and India deal with annual periods of starvation, while the US is suffering from a growing, Cheetos-fueled obesity epidemic speaks volumes. However, much of today’s Third World food scarcity issues have nothing to do with poor harvests. We don’t have a food growing problem, we have a food delivery problem.
Many developing nations have a wealth of resources and farming capacity, but a lack of infrastructure, such as roads, modern trading services, and nearby markets. Many farmers in these regions are actually disincentivized from growing more food than they need because the surplus will rot due to a lack of proper storage facilities, roads for quick shipping to buyers, and markets in which to sell. (You can read a great writeup about this point at The Verge.)
With Internet access, farmers may find nearby buyers to barter, trade, and sell their goods to more easily. They may also connect with wholesalers, secure access to microloans, and connect with government officials, providing them the resources and connections needed to more easily transport their goods and better plan their future harvests based on ready demand.
Expand this concept to craft and manufactured goods, alongside the ability to sell these goods to domestic and Western overseas buyers via e-commerce platforms—like Alibaba, Amazon, Etsy, and others—and you have the beginnings of a new entrepreneurial class where once there was nothing but poverty.
Trust in markets. As with access, trust in markets is also a stumbling block for development. Among nations with weak financial infrastructure, doing business with sums larger than a day’s pay requires an investment of time to build trust between the buyer and the seller, as there are rarely any guarantors for the transactions. With online escrow services, like Alipay or PayPal, the level of trust needed to conduct small-to-large transactions lowers considerably. In fact, it was through Alibaba’s Alipay service that Chinese customers learned to trust online transactions more than in-person cash transactions, leading to the explosive growth in Chinese e-commerce.
Competition in markets. Prior to the Internet, the seller had near total control over how they presented the value of their products and services, leaving customers with little bargaining power over their purchases. But shopping is different these days, isn’t it?
The Internet revolutionized the way people shop and spend their money. We no longer buy a television, visit a high priced restaurant, or even watch a new theatre production without reading user/customer reviews first. And even with stellar reviews, most people won’t buy a television without first checking prices among different competing retailers.
For business owners, the wealth of data about their practices (and that of their competitors) is now more public than ever. In developing countries, this loss of information control will force business owners to constantly improve their products and services, not to mention their dealings with customers, just to survive.
Leapfrogging. Similar to how developing countries have opted to build cheap wireless phone and Internet networks, as opposed to expensive phone lines, they will also gain immediate access to the top online services available from the West. Developing nations won’t have to build their own Google, Airbnb, Uber, et al; instead, they can put these services to work immediately to create jobs. Moreover, entrepreneurial locals can build knockoffs of these services that better reflect the distinct languages and customs of the regional populations they serve.
A better government. Most correspondences with the government used to require postal mail or physically visiting an office. These days, the Internet has simplified access to the government and increased its response time. Paying bills, doing taxes, securing immigration papers, filing business licenses, these services now take seconds or days instead of weeks or months.
The Internet has also proven effective when it comes to fighting extremism and authoritarian rule. The Iranian Green Movement (2009) and the Arab Spring (2010) wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. As it becomes more widespread, technology-enabled social change will become far more common across the developing (and developed) world.
Dollars and cents. In our modern world, access to the Internet drives economic growth. The numbers don’t lie:
- An extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in developing countries increases GDP growth rate per person by more than one percentage point.
- Web applications will enable 22 percent of China’s total GDP by 2025.
- By 2020, improved computer literacy and mobile data usage could grow India’s GDP by 5 percent.
- Should the Internet reach 90 percent of the world population, instead of the 32 percent today, global GDP will grow by $22 trillion by 2030—that’s a $17 gain for every $1 spent.
- Should developing countries reach Internet penetration equal to the developed world today, it will generate 120 million jobs and pull 160 million people out of poverty.
Internet as a human right
Given the Internet’s projected spread and its importance for economic growth, it’s no wonder that many people and governments around the world are calling for affordable Internet access to become a human right. In fact, Finland has recently announced just that, aiming to connect all its citizens to a 100Mbps Internet connection by 2015.
Overall, connecting the world’s population to the Internet will be one of the biggest revolutions in recent history. And the crazy thing is, it’s only a decade away. Even crazier, this growth in users isn’t the only online change we can expect to live through.
The following parts of this Future of the Internet series can be broken down into two themes: how we consume information and engage with the world and how we access the web and communicate with each other. Expect some revolutionary surprises.