Is There a Ceiling on Internet Users?

Facebook and Netflix are finding it difficult to recruit new people who want what they have to offer. At least for now, their number of users is declining.

There are complex reasons for their slowdown in growth, and we’ll learn more later today when Meta, Facebook’s parent company, releases its quarterly financial report. This edition of the newsletter is about a challenge they and other Internet companies around the world share: the useless potential of billions of people who are not online at all.

More than four out of 10 people in the world, who work for more than three billion people, do not use the Internet at home or on their phones, according to the latest estimates from the World Bank and the United Nations starting in 2019.

Most people in some of the world’s most populous countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria, are not online.

Despite the huge boom in online access in India in recent years, about 60 per cent of Indians do not use the Internet. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest country – has almost half the population not even online. By comparison, about 10 percent of Americans and a quarter of Brazilians are not online.

The tech world is not ignoring the gap between having and not having internet and the number of disconnected people is decreasing. But while digital services are still trying to capture more users, many of their ambitions are still offline or have a submarine service that prevents them from scrolling insanely through binging, YouTube surfing or Instagram on Netflix.

There is no silver bullet for the complex economic, cultural, technological and policy barriers to bringing more citizens of the world online. Proponents of the expansion of Internet use say that being connected is an economic engine and an increasingly necessary part of modern life. An Internet connection is also a minimum requirement for Internet companies to reach potential customers.

I am not saying that if 100 per cent of the 1.4 billion people in India suddenly use the internet, they will all become Netflix subscribers. Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix may be nearing saturation in the US, they have made India a priority. But their growth is limited because they can only reach about 600 million Indians who are online.

(Note about China, which has the largest number of Internet users in the world: the country blocks many popular overseas digital services, leaving China out of reach for Netflix, Facebook, Google and others.)

Ana Maria Rodriguez, a research analyst at the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s advocacy group, said that official statistics on online users could underestimate how many people do not have regular access to the Internet and cannot afford to go online frequently. Poor service or some combination thereof.

She said the World Bank and the UNA consider Internet users to be anyone who has been online at least once in the last three months. By 2019, two-thirds of people in Colombia were online, according to their statistics. But research by the Alliance for Affordable Internet found that only a quarter of Colombians have “meaningful” access, including a relatively fast, continuous online connection.

Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other tech companies and executives have various projects to expand or adapt their applications to countries where millions of people may be online for the first time. Rodriguez, whose group receives funding from tech companies, said doing more could help billions – and the bottom line – of corporations.

“It is in their interest to reach out to these people,” Rodriguez told me, referring to global Internet companies.

When I first started writing about technology more than a decade ago, I regularly asked executives if there was a limit to their growth because many people were not online, and even in rich countries like the US there was a service problem for many people. I have too many empty stars.

Perhaps they were right not to make this issue a high priority. Many more people have joined in those years, and Internet service has improved in most countries. Facebook and Spotify do not specialize in breaking down social and financial barriers to building mobile internet towers or bringing more people online.

But we are entering a period of smooth growth for many successful internet companies. To reach more people, they may need to think differently about the billions of people who are yet to be connected.

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