What will a billion new web users mean for enterprise mobility?

Don't assume that a mobile digital strategy designed for the Internet user of 2016 is going to suit the needs of the next billion Internet users. Adaptation will be crucial.

On April 3, 1973, Motorola researcher Martin Cooper phoned an engineer at rival Bell Labs. It was no ordinary chat: Cooper was making the world’s first-ever cell phone call, using a prototype that weighed 2.5 pounds and measured 11 inches long and 5 inches deep.

Today, 5 billion of us make phone calls every day on all kinds of cell phones, from basic devices to the most sophisticated smartphones. These devices are a fraction of the size of Cooper's prototype and can carry 300,000 times more information.

And the mobile revolution is just getting started. Over the next four years, the number of smartphone users worldwide will more than double, rising from 2.6 billion currently to 6.1 billion. That means around 70 percent of the world’s population will have round-the-clock access to the Internet wherever they go.

However, amid all this rapid change, you can’t assume that a mobile strategy designed for the Internet user of 2016 is going to suit the needs of the next billion Internet users, who live predominantly in the developing world and will likely be mobile first and mobile only. Adaptation will be crucial. Here’s what you need to know. 

The need for speed

At present, many new Internet users in the developing world are connecting to relatively low-quality networks. To achieve maximum Internet penetration, many Western companies are optimizing their products for these networks. Among them is LinkedIn. Speaking at Quartz’s Next Billion conference in San Francisco recently, co-founder Allen Blue said, “We’re introducing a version designed to run on less data-intensive networks.” 

Facebook, meanwhile, has introduced a new version of its messaging app, called Messenger Lite, that takes up just 10 MB of storage on smartphones instead of the 125 MB required by its standard Messenger app. And last month YouTube launched YouTube Go, a video app designed to run on minimal bandwidth. 

Such measures are a necessary stopgap until Internet connections improve—as they no doubt will, most dramatically with the upcoming rollout of so-called 5G (fifth generation) networks.

Current 4G networks, while powerful, were "designed in the early 2000s, before the smartphone revolution,” said Matt Grob, chief technology officer at mobile chipmaker Qualcomm. While a modern 4G phone can connect at a gigabit per second—the equivalent of 300,000 first-generation cell phone voice calls—5G phones will be up to 20 times faster. That's “fast enough to download an entire 4K-quality movie in just a few seconds,” according to Grob.

The 5G standard will support large numbers of users in a single location—as many as 100,000 streaming video applications in the space of a single city block, for instance. That’s going to be great for entertainment, Grob said, and for "many more capabilities that will improve education, healthcare, emergency services, and smart cities. There are just endless applications that will take advantage of this type of capability.”

One 5G-enabled technology that will be particularly valuable for the developing world is blockchain, a distributed ledger system that allows information to be stored securely and publicly. "A blockchain-based supply chain can be more liquid and more open to new participants," said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger Project, a cross-industry effort created to advance blockchain technology.

More reliable than a landline

The tremendous speed of 5G networks will allow for transformative applications. “Enhanced mobile broadband will bring in new types of immersive experiences with fiber-optic-like bandwidth, even while you’re mobile outdoors,” Grob noted. “You can stream 8K video, and with new types of user interfaces, virtual reality and augmented reality will merge together—you can switch between the two depending on what the use case is.”

In addition to speed and throughput, 5G will offer high reliability—higher reliability, in fact, than a landline—and low latency. What’s more, the connection will be tunable to the needs of its end users. For instance, if a mission such as remote robotic surgery requires minimum latency, that capability can be ordered from a service provider and then turned off when the job is done.

Preparations are now underway for 5G’s introduction in 2018 or 2019. U.S. regulators approved the spectrum in July, and Qualcomm recently introduced the world’s first 5G modem. Based on past experience, 5G will spread quickly, even among residents of developing countries who are now coming online for the first time. “If you look at how long it took to get to a billion users, every generation of wireless has been faster than the one before,” said Grob. “We expect that will be true of 5G, too.”

To be sure, smartphone penetration in developing economies has lagged behind that in the West, but the gap is shrinking. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, smartphone ownership in developing and emerging countries rose from 21 percent in 2013 to 37 percent in 2015.

Cheap Internet from outer space

For all the new capabilities that 5G will bring online, its greatest impact might come simply from the fact that it can offer an unprecedentedly low cost per bit, which will allow a vast number of people to access information that otherwise would be too expensive. 

“When you look at the aggregate demand for data, it’s going up dramatically,” Grob said. “With that kind of throughput, you’d consume your data plan of today in a short time. But because we’re fundamentally lowering the cost per bit, the data plan cost will not be going up on pace with the performance increase.”

To provide the necessary throughput, 5G will exploit new frequency spectra and take advantage of advances in antenna engineering and beam-forming technology. It will also benefit from the launch of the OneWeb constellation, a swarm of 648 low Earth orbit satellites providing wireless connectivity over the whole of the world’s surface. “In concert with other technologies, 5G can allow very low cost connectivity to be placed anywhere in the world, including areas that are not densely populated,” according to Grob. “By lowering the cost per bit, it’s going to enable a lot more business cases.”

An example was provided by another Next Billion speaker, Rick Levin, a former Yale University president who now serves as CEO of online learning company Coursera. “India has a big structural problem,” Levin said. “Only 10 percent of the population goes to college, and they want to triple that in coming decades.” That’s completely infeasible: A country of 1.3 billion people, most of them poor, cannot simply build and staff thousands of universities overnight.

But with an Internet-enabled mobile phone in the pocket of hundreds of millions of would-be students, they won’t have to. “Just as India skipped landline and went straight to mobile, they’ll probably skip brick-and-mortar colleges and go straight to online,” noted Levin. “This is a revolution—an alternative to high-cost education.”

Machines talking to machines

It isn’t just human beings who are coming online. The technical capabilities of 5G networks will help foster the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), which will connect everything from sensors that monitor the health of industrial machinery to smart thermostats and robot surgeons. Some of these devices, like home appliances, will patch in via landlines. Many more will require wireless connections. Indeed, mobile device manufacturer Ericsson predicts that by 2018, cellular IoT devices will surpass smartphones as the largest category of connected devices.

The IoT won’t just provide a way for companies to offer innovative solutions for tomorrow’s customers. It will also offer a way to learn about the world and the people in it. Sara Menker, founder and CEO of agricultural information company Gro Intelligence, envisions a world in which the IoT functions essentially as a globally distributed sensory network. “To me,” she said, “it is not inconceivable that every device that’s online could serve as some form of sensor.”

If the spread of mobile computing seems like it's already proceeding at breakneck pace, hang on—we're just getting started. Qualcomm is already thinking about sixth-generation cellular standards and just what they might entail. “If you look at 1G as being for your ears, and 2G, 3G, and 4G as being more for your eyes, then perhaps 6G will go beyond the head-mounted displays and introduce direct neural interface,” said Grob. “We can just think to each other.”

If that seems an implausible prospect, consider how stunned the telecom engineers of 1973 would have been by today’s pocket-sized, globally linked supercomputers. And the rate of change is accelerating. While the future may be unknowable, one thing seems a lock: Whatever mobile digital strategy you might choose today, you’ll have to stay nimble to keep on top of tomorrow's advances.

The mobile revolution: Lessons for leaders

  • A huge number of new customers will come online in the developing world in the next few years, and most will do so via mobile devices.
  • Mobile Internet connectivity is poor in many developing countries. As a result, companies seeking to expand there are introducing low-bandwidth versions of their apps.
  • New 5G networks will allow faster and cheaper mobile connectivity that will in turn enable transformative innovations.
  • The speed, economy, and improved functionality of 5G will speed the rise of the Internet of Things. Within five years, machines connected to the Internet will outnumber people.