The Need for Speed in the Mobile Revolution

Photographer: Grove Pashley

No matter the device -- be it a PC or smartphone -- speed matters.   Close

No matter the device -- be it a PC or smartphone -- speed matters.  

Photographer: Grove Pashley

No matter the device -- be it a PC or smartphone -- speed matters.  

The mobile revolution is supposed to bridge the digital and economic divides between nations, and yet there are countries that seem permanently stuck in the slow lane of the data super-highway.

In comparing the average mobile data speeds of 20 countries, Cisco Systems ranked Canada first (4.529 megabits per second), while it placed India at 20th (0.099 Mbps), as my colleague Jordan Robertson reported.

That means downloading 50 megabytes of music -- about an album's worth -- would take about 2 minutes on a phone in Canada versus more than an hour in India. If Cisco's estimates are accurate, even as the mobile speeds of both countries increase over time, the gap between them will also grow, with the difference in Mbps almost doubling by 2014 and close to tripling by 2017.

It's no small point. For those countries that missed out on the PC revolution, the smartphone has been seen as a way to fast-forward into the 21st century. But no matter the device, be it a desktop computer or a Samsung Galaxy S4, the speed of your connection remains a key factor in determining which side of the digital divide you reside in.

"While greater access to mobile technologies suggests the possibility of a leapfrog effect, the lack of 3G adoption suggests that mobile phones are not yet acting as functionally equivalent substitutes for personal computers," wrote Philip Napoli and Jonathan Obar in a New America Foundation study last month.

One big reason for India's low ranking is the price for speedier mobile access, which is leaving many of those who can't afford it left out. So some companies are employing unusual strategies to attract cost-sensitive customers.

Bangalore-based Karbonn Mobiles India, which sells cheap smartphones that start at $66, subsidizes monthly data packages for some users. That's in contrast with the more common model of offering discounted devices to lure subscribers into signing annual service contracts, as Bloomberg's Kartikay Mehrotra reported.

“Middle-class India is quickly realizing they can afford our devices, but it’s the recurring cost of data which they are struggling with,” Shashin Devsare, executive director at the handset seller, told Bloomberg News. “That’s the key. If we can get people online once, we believe our devices will be their point of access for years to come.”

How this and other similar efforts play out will determine whether mobile closes the technological gap or becomes yet another missed revolution.

This story was first published in Bloomberg's Global Tech Today newsletter. To get an early jump on the top tech news from around the world, sign up for the free weekday report.

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