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The next billion internet users and the rise of the smartphone

Every February, a major telecoms industry event is held, called Mobile World Congress (MWC), one held in Barcelona and to which religiously attends. It’s an important event because smartphones are democratising access to the Internet, all around the world and are the main attraction at that messe.

Ten years ago, smartphones were reserved for wealthy people in developed countries. Increasingly, however, the freedom and benefits of the mobile Internet are quite literally coming within the grasp of those in developing countries.

As the smartphone explosion continues and the cost of manufacturing and using them falls, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the next billion Internet users are going to come from emerging nations.

But price isn’t the only driver for their rapid adoption. Smartphones can solve several problems in developing regions, where the portability of small device that can make phone calls and access the Internet can be invaluable. Instead of bulky and often expensive computers that rely on using constant power sources (something that may be unreliable in some regions) why not have the Internet in your hand? Nokia (opens in new tab) famously acknowledged this at last year’s MWC when it launched its range of devices (Asha (opens in new tab)) tailored for developing regions, and HTC, Huawei and Microsoft, and many more are following suit.

Empowered to solve their unique problems

In the coming years, people in developing countries are going to find uses for this newfound Internet connectivity that we haven’t even considered yet. Mobile payments are a prime example of this. In developed countries, there are dozens of competing standards from NFC to carrier billing, but none have really taken off, largely because they don’t offer significant benefits over existing payment methods like credit cards. In Africa, mobile payments are fast becoming the standard, especially where people don’t have ready access to full banking facilities. One of the leaders in the African market, M-PESA, conducted research which found that, “customers save three hours per transaction which is ploughed back into economic productivity and the saving of US$3 is spent mainly on food and savings”.

Similarly, UNICEF increasingly uses mobile phones to support and enhance its work in 190 countries and territories around the world, for everything from health monitoring to logistics. In China, Internet access through cheap smartphones may offer a way to democratise access to education. With 70 per cent of China’s population living in rural areas, delivering cheap and reliable Internet access could change the entire education system.

But is there room enough to grow?

It’s important to remember that every device that connects to the Internet needs its own IP address, and this includes smartphones. This underlines the importance of IPv6 adoption in ensuring the future of the Internet. IPv4 only ever had enough space for around 4.2 billion addresses, so without the trillions of addresses offered by IPv6, we could have seen a situation where our technology and whole sections of society are artificially limited from accessing the Internet simply because we are using an inefficient numbering system.

Gartner estimates that in last quarter of 2012 alone, more than 207 million new smartphones were sold, and since 2006 the number of Internet users has more than doubled. With numbers like these it’s easy to see how essential IPv6 deployment is for enabling future growth.

Apart from helping to democratise Internet access, there are other benefits to IPv6 too. At CES, which happened in January 2013, research was presented which suggests IPv6 helps to improve the battery life of smartphones. As highlighted by UNICEF, battery life is an essential factor in helping people in developing regions to use Internet connected devices.

While the next billion Internet users are looking to gain basic access, the Internet never stands still and the growth in Internet-connected devices continues in developed countries too. Based on recent developments in the technology industry, the next generation of Internet-connected devices looks set to be wearable, with smartwatches like the Pebble, and the Google Glass project both making headlines – and it’s easy to see how this technology could benefit people everywhere.

Axel Pawlik (opens in new tab) is the Managing Director of the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC). Axel graduated from the University of Dortmund, Germany, with a Masters Degree in Computer Science. He was later employed at the University of Dortmund from 1985 to 1992, where he contributed to the establishment of UNIX networking as a publicly available service in Germany.