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Ranking topics: Mobile phones

According to India’s telecoms regulator, subscriptions for mobile-broadband services more than doubled between the end of 2016 and the end of 2018, from 218m to 500m. At about 3,500 rupees ($50) for a low-end model, smartphones remain dear for an Indian villager’s pocket. But a smartish phone from Reliance Jio—one with app-running cleverness, but no touchscreen—can be had for just 1,500 rupees. Jio, backed by the muscle of the Reliance group, has subsidised not just handsets but also, more importantly, data transmission. Competition between it and the incumbents has seen the price of a mobile-data package slashed by 94%, and consumption has duly exploded ten-fold to 8.8GB per subscriber per month. Indians now gobble up nearly three times as much data on their phones as Americans. They seem on course to become the world’s biggest consumers of mobile-phone data.

The size and speed of India’s growth spurt owes a lot to the price war Reliance Jio set off. But the global trend it embodies does not. At some time in 2018 the proportion of the global population using the internet rose above half, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency. The second half of the internet will not come online as quickly as the first half was doing in the early 2010s; exponential growth cannot continue in a finite world. But if the 710m new internet users expected to come online in the next seven years is only half the number that arrived in the past seven years, it is still a mighty throng. The chances that a child born today will not have a phone as a teenager are already slim, and quickly growing slimmer.

And almost all this future growth will be in developing countries. The 81% of the developed world—a billion people—online is unlikely to increase its number by much. China, at 58%—800m people—has more room for growth. But internet users elsewhere, who already handily outnumber those in the developed world and China put together, make up only 39% of their countries’ populations. Those are the countries where most of the next billion will come from, and the billion after that, and the billion after that. And as they swell the internet’s numbers, they will change its character.

This extract is from our Briefing on the second half of the internet.