The Future of the Internet in China

The Grand Ballroom
Renaissance Beijing Hotel
1642 hrs.

During the panel at Under the Digital Influence, one of Matt Roberts’ questions to my panel was what we saw as the biggest factor that will change the Internet in China over the next five years.

My response was that while there are a lot of trends that are affecting China’s Internet, the biggest one I can see is mobility and wireless.

Unwiring China

The last part first.

China is in the final stages of upgrading its Internet access from dial-up to broadband, but over the next five years we’re going to see wireless access start to displace wireline access for a growing portion of the individual’s online day. By “wireless,” I mean a combination of access via cellular networks, access via the growing number of publicly accessible Wi-Fi (free or paid), and via the quietly emerging WiMax wide-area wireless broadband.

That shift is already beginning, but I see it accelerating over the next half-decade.

Handsets Across the Divide

I’m prepping a longer post about this, but my firm belief is that while talking about the digital divide is no longer a fashionable topic among the digirati, the problem is growing in China. While a decade ago all of China was on the unplugged side of the gap, today about 12% of China has managed to leap across, on the back of a massive expansion in China’s broadband networks.

But as the networks grow, the problem of access has devolved to the problem of the terminal. The 160 million people we see online in China today is an impressive number, but the number of people with access to computers is not growing fast enough to ensure that the unplugged 88% of China will have a hope of getting online in the near future.

Crossing the digital divide – and avoiding the long-term social and political implications of excluding 8 out of 9 Chinese just because they can’t afford to shell out a year’s salary on the price of a computer – is not going to be a matter of super cheap computers like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, or about creating stripped down computers with stripped-down operating system. It’s going to be all of that, but more is needed. Given the success of the mobile phone industry in driving the costs of handsets down into a few tens of dollars, the easiest footbridge across the divide is clearly going to be the mobile handset.

More on this later.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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