We focus this year’s report on the mobile Internet for two reasons. First, as with mobile telephony, the mobile Internet does not just liberate us from the constraints of a wired connection, but it offers hundreds of millions around the world their only, or primary, means of accessing the Internet. Second, the mobile Internet does not just extend the reach of the Internet as used on fixed connections, but it offers new functionality in combination with new portable access devices.
The benefits of the mobile Internet should not come at the expense of the founding principles of the Internet that led to its success. The nature of the Internet should remain collaborative and inclusive, regardless of changing means of access. In particular, the mobile Internet should remain open, to enable the permission-less innovation that has driven the continuous growth and evolution of the Internet to date, including the emergence of the mobile Internet itself.
Mobile voice technology was introduced in the 1980s and quickly upended traditional telephony around the world. Two major milestones of the last decade have multiplied the impact of mobile technology and shaped the mobile Internet of today.
It is important that the benefits of the mobile Internet are not achieved at the expense of the fundamental principles of the Internet. The Internet has seen significant change since it was established as a research network more than forty years ago, in terms of both network technology and services offered, including the rise of the mobile Internet that is at the heart of this report.
In the light of those considerations, it is important to understand what is actually important and unchanging about the Internet – the invariants that have been true to date – and that should continue to apply to the mobile Internet. Find out more
The first milestone in the development of the mobile Internet is the introduction of the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) in mid-2000. GPRS added Internet access to the existing second-generation (2G) GSM mobile voice service. For this reason, GPRS is often referred to as 2.5G technology. While GPRS is very slow by today’s standards, it is packed-switched and thus provides always-on access to the Internet, albeit originally over traditional feature phones.
Mobile technologies have been evolving throughout the years, with each new release acting as a step towards improved performance and reduced cost.
First-generation wireless analogue cellular communications standard; analogue radios, poor voice quality, low security, limited data services
Second-generation wireless digital cellular communications standard; digital radios, improved speech quality, encrypted transmission, data services. Speeds of up to 153.6kbit/s
Third-generation wireless digital technology standards; offers faster data rates, allowing a wider range of products and services to be delivered Speeds of up to 56Mbit/s
Fourth-generation wireless digital technology standards for mobile phones and data terminals. Speeds of up to 1Gbit/s
Our focus in this report will be on networks that offer full mobility, such as the evolution of technologies provided above. This does not downplay the general benefits of wireless access using technologies such as Wi-Fi accessed through a wide variety of devices including laptop computers. Such access has a myriad of benefits, cutting us loose from our desks, extending our productivity, even allowing in-flight access to the Internet for those who want that.
However, such access is not the same as full mobility – it is typically an extension of our existing access. For instance, Wi-Fi is often linked to a fixed connection to provide limited mobility and/or to offload mobile network traffic. This does not offer the possibility of accessing the Internet everywhere, as with full mobility; and it does not fundamentally change the nature of the services available over the Internet as with a smartphone.
Other technologies exist or are being developed for mobile Internet access, including Wi-Max and white spaces, while new forms of extending the mobile network are being explored, including high-altitude balloon, drone, or new satellite systems.
The second milestone paving the way for the introduction of the mobile Internet was the release of the Apple iPhone, in June 2007. Although this was not the first mass-market smartphone, the iPhone had the ability to input with a full keyboard and finger gestures using a multitouch touchscreen which also conveyed full color output. This allowed users the ability to use a browser in a similar way as on a traditional personal computer, and the iPhone also created the path for applications (commonly referred to as apps).
The first iPhone was introduced with applications. However, these preloaded apps were all developed by Apple until the introduction of the Apple App Store in July 2008. Mobile apps are hugely popular and a May 2012 comScore study reported that during the previous quarter, the proportion of mobile subscribers using apps exceeded that browsing the web on their devices for the first time, in the United States. As discussed below, apps are not just a convenient way to interact with the smart device, similar to a software program on a computer, but rather they enable users to access the full-range of features on the smart device.
The smart device combines many formerly separate devices into one; enabling an amazing range of functionality.
A smart device, at heart, is a small but powerful computer, with many of the same features as a larger laptop in a more portable version.
These features include significant amounts of storage, a fast processor, the ability to input based on a keyboard or voice, a high-quality screen, and a variety of communications options.More details about features and technology of smart devices
In addition to its personal computer functionality, a significant number of features are included in a smart device that are not included in a traditioanal laptop computer. These include sensors that measure the environment and the motion and position of the smart device. We note in particular that these features provide detailed information on the user’s location, which is used in many location-based services that feature throughout this report.More details about features and technology of smart devices
The full hardware features of smart devices can only be accessed through native apps.
A smart device’s mobile OS is used as a conduit through which the hardware, including its sensors, speakers and camera, are accessible.
However, the related Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), a set of building blocks for developing software applications, are traditionally only accessible to developers through native Apps. Traditionally these APIs are not fully accessible to websites, meaning that web pages accessed via a web browser can use less of the smartphone’s hardware features than those accessed via a specially developed App.
However, mobile web browsers are getting increasingly good at accessing certain mobile-specific functions such as click-to-call, SMS and GPS, with developments such as WebRTC allowing browser-based services to access phone and camera resources. Nonetheless, this still does not provide the same capabilities as are available through the use of native apps and therefore there is still a limit to the capabilities of browser-based services using HTML5.
For the purposes of this report, we define the mobile Internet as fully mobile access to the Internet using smart devices.
This mix provides significant benefits to users, many of which are readily apparent, others of which we can only imagine. We highlight two benefits here.
First, it is clear that the mobile Internet will play a key role in bringing the next billion users online. Mobile has already leap-frogged fixed access in many countries because of limitations in the coverage of the fixed network – as we show in Section 2, mobile network coverage is already extensive in many countries, with the result that the availability of mobile Internet access outpaces adoption. The mobile Internet is therefore central to realising the Internet Society vision that ‘The Internet is for everyone’
Further benefits of the mobile Internet are arising from new innovative services based on mobile access to the Internet using all the features embedded into the smart devices, and accessed through application usage. These services enable social inclusion, interaction with government, and commerce, among other applications, and we highlight these further in Section 3. These innovations are already driving a further evolution of the Internet that has been in a state of constant change since its founding.
Mobile phones have long since leap-frogged fixed phone connections in developing countries. By December 2010, mobile broadband exceeded fixed Internet connections in developing countries.
Further, smartphone shipments exceeded 50% of all mobile handset shipments in developing countries by September 2014.
Apps are likely to be the predominant mode of access to the mobile Internet for most users, in part because they enable access to the full features of the smart devices.
The impact of the mobile Internet goes well beyond simply unplugging our traditional access to the Internet. It is not simply providing app icons that we can use for convenience instead of using a website from a browser. These changes, alone, have extended access and usability far beyond what it was just ten years ago. However, the mobile Internet is defined by use of a smart device in addition to the lack of a wire; by the functionality of the apps as well as their convenience.
We want to stress, though, that the mobile Internet involves the interaction of these smart devices with the Internet, and not just the functionality of the smart devices themselves. One way to picture this is to subject services and applications to what might be called the ‘airplane mode’ test.
In airplane mode, a smart device turns off all of its wireless communications, including the connection to the mobile network and Wi-Fi, to avoid interfering with airplane avionics. As a result, the device can be used as a portable computer, with all of its processing, memory, and touchscreen capabilities, but cannot interact with the Internet.
There are apps that are usable in airplane mode having already downloaded all usable functionality or relevant content. For instance, ebooks can still be read, many games can be played, and PowerPoint presentations can be edited. Such apps, while interacting with the Internet to download functionality or upload edits, mainly rely on the features of the smart device, not the power of the Internet.
In our consideration of the mobile Internet we will focus on the services and applications that cannot function in airplane mode, in other words that interact with the Internet in delivering their functionality. For example, an app that downloads maps from the Internet to provide driving directions is a good use of the Internet; an app that provides real-time information from the Internet about traffic and road conditions uses the mobile Internet.
Within the topic of the mobile Internet there are two stories that are fundamental to the mission and vision of the Internet Society, which can be viewed separately or as part of a broader whole:
Full mobility is at the heart of the mobile Internet; built on top of the ubiquitous mobile voice networks, this makes the mobile Internet integral to Internet development around the world. It is often said that mobile access has leap-frogged fixed access; however, just as important, based on the unique attributes of the mobile Internet, mobile services such as mobile money are leapfrogging traditional ones.
In addition, the features of the smart device, combined with the increased use of apps, are changing the fundamental nature of the Internet, and introducing new concerns regarding privacy and security.
Wi-Fi data can be used to identify a handset’s location. Companies develop public Wi-Fi location databases that identify the location of hotspots using unique identifying features. For instance, the Google Street View cars also record the locations of all Wi-Fi signals that they pass. The user’s position is then calculated based on measuring the intensity of any received Wi-Fi signal(s) and matching it to the public Wi-Fi location database.
Most smartphones combine Global Positioning Systems (GPS) with Wi-Fi positioning systems, with Wi-Fi positioning used to compensate for the poor performance of GPS in indoor locations.
A space-based satellite navigation system based on time. The satellites carry atomic clocks and the satellite locations are monitored precisely. These GPS satellites transmit data continuously which contains their current time and position. A GPS receiver within a smartphone or other GPS-using device listens to multiple satellites and uses triangulation based on the time taken for the signal to travel from the satellite to the handset to calculate the user’s exact location.
The service provider can derive location using the network provider’s infrastructure. The location of the user is calculated based on the radio signal delay of the closest cell-phone towers.
The navigational capability for smartphones has been extended beyond on-screen feedback, such as for instance an app and device that causes bicycle handlebars to vibrate in the direction of the turn. Find out more
Furthermore, location functionality allows data to be collected on travel, for example the use of Baidu apps in China showed that around 80 million people were travelling for Chinese New Year celebrations on 16 February 2015. Find out more