Carrier Evolution

A high-level study sponsored by Alcatel-Lucent and conducted by the ENPC (Ecole des Ponts ParisTech) illustrates an important and historic change in global communications, especially the decades-long effort to figure out how to provide communications to billions of human beings who had not previously “made phone call,” much less “used the Internet.”

In recent years, the concern has shifted dramatically to mobile service for the “next billion” people, or Internet for the next billion people, where in the 1960s and 1970s the issue was providing “phone service” to the “next billion” users in developing countries.

What has gone somewhat unnoticed is the truly stunning progress, globally, in getting communications services to users in developing regions, where once policy makers struggled to anticipate how that could be done with legacy technology, namely fixed networks.

Without too much fanfare, the answers have emerged organically from use of mobile and Internet technologies.

With six billion mobile users globally in 2011, usage of mobile phones has become a truly planetary phenomenon, and has largely erased the “divide” between people in developed countries and people in developing countries, in terms of ability to use communications.

So extensive has communications become that policy makers no longer worry too much about “how” to accomplish the goal of getting communications to “everybody.” For the most part, financial incentives for private firms to invest huge amounts of capital are in place, the revenue models are established and people have proven highly motivated to buy such services.

The objective is to replicate the high degree of mobile connectivity and Internet access seen in developed regions, in developing regions as well. And there is widespread agreement that the goal will be reached, faster than most experienced policy makers might once have believed would be the case.

Globally, Ovum forecasts that global mobile connections will reach 7.6 billion in 2015. If that seems unremarkable, consider that world population in 2011 was about seven billion people. That is a remarkable achievement.

Internet usage doubled between 2005 and 2010 as well. Penetration in developed countries was estimated at 73.8 percent by end of 2011, though with wide discrepancies among regions.

Internet penetration in Europe was at 74.4 percent, while it was at 56.3 percent in United States. In developing countries, the penetration rate is estimated at 26.3 percent. In Africa, it is only at 12.8 percent.

However, this represents an increase of 533 percent from 2006 to 2011, compared to an increase of 156 percent in the United States over the same period.

In other words, global service providers rapidly are closing the Internet access gap, all over the world.

Every now and then, we might pause to be extremely thankful that communications “divides” are being bridged so rapidly, for the next billion users in the developing world. It is a truly remarkable development.