The Internet Society explains why availability is no longer the No. 1 issue

The organization’s chief economist talks about how global demands will reshape IT priorities over the next few years

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In the past, bridging the digital divide was about making the Internet more accessible to developing regions (including within Canada). But thanks to the rise of the mobile Internet, availability isn’t such a big deal anymore.

The global Internet has passed an irreversible milestone, according to the Internet Society’s second annual Global Internet Report, which was released on June 7. Availability is no longer the primary issue in closing the digital gap — instead, it’s affordability and relevance of content.

“The new reality is that almost everyone on the globe is within range of a mobile signal, so once the networks are deployed… the cost of upgrading to mobile Internet is relatively low,” Michael Kende, the report’s author and chief economist for the Internet Society, told expertIP. In fact, the report forecasts Internet penetration to reach 71 per cent by 2019.

The mobile Internet has fundamentally transformed Internet access and use, but it’s also created new challenges. Today there are more than 3 billion people online.

We’re seeing the next billion come online, said Kende, and mobile is their main — if not only — way of accessing the Internet. “It’s inevitable,” he said. “A greater percentage of Internet users are getting online with mobile.”

Upgrading networks to offer mobile Internet is an incremental step that is being adopted ever faster than mobile telephony before it, according to the report. The mobile Internet extends beyond accessing data over a wireless connection: smartphones and tablets offer new features and functionality through apps — not browsers. And that’s evolving how people use the Internet.

But in some countries, mobile Internet access can cost 10, 20 or 30 per cent of a person’s monthly income (in a few cases, it’s more than 100 per cent). Another issue is relevant local content: if your language isn’t well represented in the digital realm or you’re illiterate, then going online isn’t so enticing.

But the mobile Internet is becoming increasingly important, as sensors in smart devices enable them to become part of the emerging Internet of Things, says the report. Governments are starting to use mobile networks to create smart cities, and new opportunities exist to improve livelihoods, education and healthcare.

“Where things haven’t moved along is in making more content available, which is a question of… making app stores available,” said Kende. “There are a number of countries where there’s no Google Play or Apple Store — what would you do with a smartphone if there’s no app store?”

This comes back to the current app environment. Time spent using apps exceeds time spent on mobile browsers, according to the report, and in the U.S. it exceeds time spent on desktop and mobile browsers combined.

“The result is that it’s increasingly difficult to change platforms, from Apple to Android or another,” said Kende. “Because all apps are native, they have to be rewritten for each additional platform.”

This is a major issue for users, as well as developers (and IT teams deploying BYOD).

And it’s why we’re seeing so much interest in web apps — websites that can access the advanced features of smartphones and be loaded onto the screen as an icon, but are not native to any particular platform. Work is underway, said Kende, and “that will play itself out over next two to three years.” Web apps have the potential to increase choice for users, but should also help public- and private-sector organizations save on development costs.

For those who haven’t started ramping up their mobile Internet infrastructure, it’s time to get moving. For policymakers, it’s time to ensure the mobile Internet is affordable and relevant to users — so we can start making some headway on that digital divide.

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