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Sooner Than You Think

The Next Big Phones Could Bring a Billion People Online

About half of humanity don’t have internet access, and a lot of those people are in Africa. Enter a $20 device with smartphone brains and a five-day battery.

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Students from Daraja Academy in Laikipia, Kenya, run across the schoolyard during a break. The Daraja cell tower can be seen behind the school’s administration block.

Students from Daraja Academy in Laikipia, Kenya, run across the schoolyard during a break. The Daraja cell tower can be seen behind the school’s administration block.

Photographer: Sarah Waiswa for Bloomberg Businessweek

A few short years ago, the perennial corporate quest for the Next Billion Internet Users seemed like a strong pitch. Tech companies would put the sum of human knowledge in the pockets of the world’s poor, all while pulling in ad dollars from big multinationals that would pay to reach them. These days, though, the costs of this business model are clearer. Social media apps have been blamed for stoking a genocide in Myanmar, lynchings in India, and electoral interference around the world. They’ve also contributed to a creeping, grinding addiction to our glowing, rectangle-shaped dopamine drips. Do we really think the 50% of humanity without an internet connection would be better off with one?

Well, yeah. Greater internet access correlates directly with improved health care, education, gender equality, economic development, and lots of other goals well-financed nonprofits struggle to achieve. Boosting a poor country’s mobile internet use by 10% correlates with an average 2 percentage-point increase in gross domestic product, and electronic channels have proved capable of making governments more responsive to civic complaints, too. By contrast, women and people living in rural areas lag behind in online use, which limits their access to government services, banking, and job opportunities.