All spectrums of our global society, from the developing to the developed world, have seen an exponential explosion in internet access. Internet Live Stats defines an Internet user as “an individual who has access to the Internet at home. This indicator does not record use, or frequency of use, but only access.” This definition means a lot of things as well: access to working hardware, an Internet subscription service or free provider, and access available at any time. There are also no age limits, so an Internet user can be of any age.
The statistics bear it out: in 2005, 51% of the developed world had access to the internet, compared to just under 8% of the developing. Fast-forward to 2016: 81% of the developed world now has internet access compared to 40% of the developing world. The growth in access has become far less concentrated, and has thus opened to the door to advertisers, retailers, and a new age in the news media. Internet Live Stats projects 3.4 billion active throughout the world by the end of fiscal year 2016.
In the U.S., an estimated 192.69 million Americans in 2015 had access to the internet in their homes, with millions more having access through mobile networks, as well as through their workplaces and public libraries. Abroad, the growth in access has been even more dramatic. Bulgaria—a good bellwether for the still underdeveloped states of eastern Europe—over the course of twelve years saw a 49% increase in internet access among its citizens. China (unsurprisingly) leads the world in internet users with 721.43 million users, followed by India with 462.12 million, and the United States coming in third with 286.94 million total users (both in home and handheld devices).
The impact of this access revolution is obvious. Industries once non-existent or on the fringe of the marketplace have emerged into multi-billion dollar industries. Take social media, for example. Nearly non-existent prior to 2004, social media accounts now constitute 69% of all users with internet access. Social media’s transformation and usage mirror that of the internet in general. Once used as a way to connect people with person-to-person communication, social media (namely Facebook/Instagram and Twitter) has become the primary news medium for hundreds of millions of users. A recent study by Pew Research found that 62% of all Facebook users polled used the platform as their primary news source concerning politics and government affairs. In the same study, 40% of Twitter users responded to using Twitter as their primary source of politics and government related news.
In addition to serving as a vehicle for journalists and news agencies, retailers have seen a tremendous growth in online sales. Since 2010 e-commerce has seen on average growth of 15% per year. Further, retail analytics firm comScore found “consumers are now buying more things online than in stores. The survey, now in its fifth year, polled more than 5,000 consumers who make at least two online purchases in a three-month period. According to results, shoppers now make 51% of their purchases online, compared to 48% in 2015 and 47% in 2014. As online shopping accelerates, so does the use of smartphones to make purchases. The survey showed that 44% of smartphone users made buys through their devices, compared to 41% a year ago.”
These numbers are all but guaranteed to increase in the coming years, reflected by Google’s 2010 decision to shift to a mobile-first mindset, articulated by then-CEO Eric Schmidt: “Our programmers are doing work on mobile first. We’ll still have a desktop version, but we’ll also have one on a high-performance mobile phone. The top programmers want to work on mobile apps.” Now on the cutting edge of spreading internet access to more people, the number of smartphone users in 2010 was 62.6 million users. That number is expected to multiply over fourfold to 264.3 million users by 2021.
Internet access over the last 15 years has expanded to include billions of people from all corners of the earth and from all walks of life. A new audience and market has been built, and with the further development of wireless internet technology and smartphones, that audience and market is all but guaranteed to continue its dramatic rise in inclusiveness. Like Google realized in 2010, it appears that the future of the world is not only desktop, it’s in the palm of our hands.
Will is the spring 2017 intern for the SIGNAL Digital team. Prior to joining SIGNAL, Will worked on the Claudia Tenney for Congress campaign, directing get-out-the-vote and digital outreach efforts.