Mobile or Internet?

A report from Gartner Research announced this week that 1 in 5 households in the world has broadband internet access.  Well that's pretty good, but color me not that impressed-- the 3.5 billion people with mobile phones create a much broader network.  Whether you're a corporation focused on capturing emerging markets, or a non-profit looking to improving lives around the world, the mobile audience is a lot bigger. 

But if you take a look at the chart (cribbed from the Economist) at left, you'll see an interesting counterpoint to the above.  While mobile phones might offer broader impact, broadband penetration packs a much more powerful punch.  A  10% increase in mobile subscriptions causes a 0.8% growth in GDP in a develping country, but a comprable increase in broadband subscriptions leads to a 1.4% growth.

So should we be more interested in expanding mobile networks, which have a good deal of infrastructure in place and are spreading like the chicken pox all by themselves, or in pushing broadband internet, which will promote faster growth?

I'm relieved to say that I don't think we'll ever have to make that choice. While it's great to see new undersea broadband cables beginning to tie Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya into the global network, it's hard to imagine a fibre backbone running securely through Central Africa-- and it won't ever be necessary. If you take a look at the second pilfered graph, projections suggest that sometime in 2011, more people will get their broadband over their mobile device than through a cable running into their house. Already, more than half the phones imported to Africa have data capabilties.

This is part of a broader trend of the gradual merging of mobile and internet services. 4G networks will be up and running in less than two years' time, and at that point, a netbook with web access over mobile networks will be nearly as good as a laptop plugged into the wall. Before you know it, every device will connect to the web wirelessly over mobile broadband networks, and bringing broadband into the developing world won't require costly, risky cables.

If you're looking for impact in the near-term, simple mobile capacity is the way to go. But if you're looking long-term, internet services will be the cheaper, deeper, faster option before you can say mobile broadband.