Google’s quest to reach the next billion
By Edwin Yapp December 6, 2012
- Search giant believes that it’s possible to get one billion more Net users by 2015
- Several obstacles to getting there, but they're being addressed
IT'S no secret that one of Google’s missions in life is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful for all. But unbeknownst to many, Google has another aim – that of getting another billion people online, especially from developing nations.
The search giant’s goals are ambitious and not easy to achieve. According to the Internet World Stats, there are approximately 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide as of June this year, out of a population of seven billion.
Still, the world's most popular search engine company is optimistic about reaching the next billion, as it believes that a combination of factors can make this a reality in the next few years.
Speaking to the media at its annual regional press event on Dec 3 in Singapore, Julian Persaud (pic), managing director, Google South-East Asia, said that the company believes it’s time to redefine the Internet and its usage because there have been some big changes observed over the last few years.
“The Web used to be defined by large developed countries – the United States, UK, Germany – but it is now no longer true as it is now defined by even larger developing countries such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia. We are seeing a billion [more] users coming online from 2010 to 2015, half of which have already come online from today  to 2015.”
Persaud noted that much of this growth is coming from what is traditionally known as “developing nations,” which is approximated to 3.3 billion people or 47% of the world’s population, excluding China and Russia.
“Of this 3.3 billion, only 474 million or 14% are online and so there is a huge potential for growth,” he said. “Simply put, if you think about the center of gravity and how it’s changing, it’s moving away from the West and the northern hemisphere and away from the English language.”
He also noted that the mobile phone is to be the center of this growth, saying that the Web on the desktop is a thing of the past.
“If you think about what mobile devices and smartphones are doing, they are creating a ‘leapfrog moment’ as many of these people in these regions are not going to open the desktop PC [to get access] to the Internet.
“It’s tempting to think that Pakistan or the Philippines, for example, are 10 years behind the US or UK,” he said. “We need to reset our thoughts on this as these countries are building from a new and, often, a mobile base and we are entering a brave new world and a new platform for Internet growth around the world."
Several challenges, solutions
Despite Google’s belief that it can reach the next billion with the Internet, the search king acknowledged that the road getting there will clearly be paved with challenges, some of which are being addressed by the company now.
Nelson Mattos, vice president of product and engineering for Europe and emerging markets at Google, noted the Internet has clearly changed the Western world and these same changes can be experienced by the developing world too.
Conceding that there are impediments to getting there, Mattos said, “We are beginning to see these changes particularly in South-East Asia but even though we’ve seen [progress], the speed of this growth has not corresponded with the progress.
“[The situation] does reflect the potential of this region, as a lot of the people are still offline and only 14% of emerging markets are taking advantages of [what] the Internet [has to offer].”
Mattos said that Google is taking a long-term approach in trying to answer the question as to how the company can help more people onto the Internet. He said underpinning its effort to reach the next billion is the ability to address three challenges of what he sees as factors holding emerging markets back.
The first, he said, had to do with the cost of access to the Internet; the second, the non-relevance of content; and the third, markets not having a sustainable community, that is IT professionals within the ecosystem that can help contribute to businesses.
“The simple fact, is that Internet is very expensive for a lot of the developing world, 10 times more than in the US and Europe, [taking into account income affordability],” Mattos said. “Moreover, a lot of networks [wired and wireless] are also very overloaded, taking on more than they can handle.”
But while the cost of local access might be reducing in some emerging economies, the cost of international bandwidth, as experienced by Malaysia, is not.
When asked what can be done about this, Mattos (pic) said there is “no one single answer to the question.”
“There is a collection of things that is already happening that can help address this issue, but it’s not going to be a single thing [that is going to solve this],” he said.
Today, most of the content is coming from other parts of the globe, so the one thing countries can do is to start hosting the content locally, Mattos said. As local providers start putting up their content, hopefully this will encourage more hosting locally, he added.
“As for Google, we have invested in the local backend [in data centers] and this will also help keep the content locally within the countries. Besides this, investment into things like Wi-Fi networks is also important as in general in most big cities, the bottleneck of congestion is in the last mile [in mobile networks].”
Besides infrastructure, Mattos said Google is addressing other factors such as making content relevant to its users, making local languages accessible, and introducing products and services to cover not only smartphones but feature phones too.
“There is still a lot of irrelevant content on the Net and this is where we have to rethink about how to develop products not only for smartphones, but even feature based phones,” he explained. “For example, in some countries, SMS-based banking services are even better than the service traditional banks give. Data plans are still expensive and things would have to be done using basic services.
“We also have to provide relevant information services such as business listings and information on government and medical services as it took decades for the West to develop such services, which we take for granted."
Mattos believes that at the end of the day, if the barrier to the growth of the Internet were lowered, more people will come online, including businesses.
“These businesses will have more access to information, which will then incentivize service providers to improve their infrastructure, which will then improve business opportunities for all,” he said. “This way, the growth of the Internet is going to be more balanced, instead of being driven by just a few large conglomerates, and rather by small businesses online. This will better reflect local culture and needs, and make the Internet better and the local economy a lot stronger.”