March 4, 2014

2014 Mobile World Congress: Connecting Emerging Economies to the Mobile Internet

Attracting more than 85,000 visitors from 201 countries, the 2014 GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC14) took place in Barcelona, Spain from Feb. 24-27, 2014. As outlined in a GSMA press release, "The four-day conference and exhibition attracted executives from the world's largest and most influential mobile operators, software companies, equipment providers, Internet companies and companies from industry sectors such as automotive, finance and healthcare, as well as government delegations from across the globe." While several themes were addressed at MWC14, this was the first year the mobile phone use and Internet connectivity in emerging economies and developing countries was a significant focus at a Mobile World Congress.

Low-cost smartphones designed specifically for emerging economies was a significant theme at MWC14. While they may not have the high-quality components installed (e.g., processors or displays), these smartphones will allow people in emerging economies to access the Internet via mobile broadband connectivity. Supporting this theme, U.S.-based Mozilla said it will launch a US$25 smartphone running its Firefox OS. Mozilla's press release said the SC6821 "redefines the entry level for smartphones in key growth markets."

Mozilla also announced that its "Firefox OS will be expanding into important new markets in 2014. Telef√≥nica will build on the list of countries where it's selling Firefox OS phones, with eight more launching this year: Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama. Deutsche Telekom will also add four new markets: Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia and Montenegro." Importantly for app and web-content developers like ROI3, Inc., "Firefox OS devices are the first devices built entirely to open Web standards, with every feature developed as an HTML5 application."

In his keynote appearance, Mark Zuckerberg, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, talked about connecting billions of people in emerging markets to the Internet by offering basic connectivity for free. "Why are the next two billion not on the internet?" he asked. "The reason is not because they don't have any money, it's because they don't know the value of having a data plan or the services they can access."

Photo: Mobile World Live
Launched in August 2013, Internet.org is a global partnership, whose founding members include Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, possessing the goal of making internet access available to the next five billion people for free. Referencing the aim of Internet.org during his keynote, Mr. Zuckerberg said, "Only 2.7 billion people have access to the Internet and it's growing more slowly than you think. The main cost is not the smartphone; it's the cost of the data access. We are really not on a path at this point to connect everyone in the world." He suggests that connecting billions to the Internet for free can be achieved within 5-10 years in two ways: (1) significantly reducing network costs to deliver data and (2) building more efficient applications to reduce data usage.

During MWC14, GSMA and Facebook, through its Internet.org partnership, announced "a joint initiative designed to connect the billions of men and women globally that currently have no access to Internet-based communications services." The press release further explains, "The joint initiative will focus on reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO) of mobile, given that mobile will be the enabling technology for the vast majority of people in developing markets." Moreover, "The activities undertaken by the GSMA and Facebook will entail working with governments in developing markets to address key factors that have an impact on affordability and availability."

With a focus on developing mLearning apps and web-content optimized for mobile phones and tablets for people in emerging economies and developing countries, it is very encouraging to see a focus on broadening Internet connectivity worldwide at MWC14. I agree with Mr. Zuckerberg when he said, "[Internet access] is really important, because connectivity is not an end in itself. It's what connectivity can bring."

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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