The affordability of mobile devices continues to be a key barrier to the uptake of the mobile internet in developing markets.
So said Dr Nasser Marafih, CEO of ooredoo (formerly Qtel), in a Mobile World Congress session yesterday on "Connecting the next billion to the internet".
Bharti Airtel MD and CEO Manoj Kohli said he sees the high cost of high-end phones as a medium-term obstacle, predicting that in five years there will only be smartphones, priced as low as $30. He argued that 100% of world has to be connected to the internet, because "humans are social animals and they love to be connected".
With only one-third of mobile users worldwide connected to the internet -- and just 13% in the Middle East -- the opportunities are huge, Marafih said. "We know what mobile has done for the Arab spring in 2011, and that was with low penetration. Just imagine if that penetration was higher, the power of the people."
He said that adding the next billion will be a more difficult challenge, and it can't be solved just by mobile operators and device makers. "It requires the participation of governments, regulators and other industry players in solving this problem."
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop agreed that bridging the digital divide is very difficult. "If it were easy, we wouldn't be talking about it here year after year."
He said one of the things that makes this opportunity so challenging is that the lessons learned in developed markets don't necessarily apply to new growth markets. "So a new roadmap is required."
While the cost of smartphones remains out of reach for much of the world, Nokia is pushing ways for users of feature phones to participate in the app economy -- often on 2G networks. Its cloud-based Express browser, which compresses data up to 90%, is used by more than 70 million people worldwide.
Mozilla Gary Kovacs CEO said it took 22 years for the number of internet users to reach two billion and will take just five years to add the next two billion.