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Wall Street Journal – Tech Companies Struggle to Get World on Internet

Posted on Apr 21, 2015
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Wall Street Journal –  When Sumarni, a 39-year-old woman in a rural village in Indonesia, first cradled a smartphone in her hand about two years ago, her reaction was “bingung,” the word for “confused” in Indonesian.

As she looked at the Android phone’s sleek, black surface, she asked herself: “Where are the buttons?” She was wary of holding it, since the smartphone was worth far more than her monthly income of roughly $60 from selling crackers and potato chips at a room in her house.

Now, though, Ms. Sumarni is an enthusiastic participant in the world-wide digital economy. She proficiently uses her smartphone’s Web browser, mobile messaging service WhatsApp and Facebook Inc.’s social-networking site, where she has 40 friends and launched an online shop with women’s clothing and accessories.

That makes her a dream come true for technology companies as they try to reach the roughly two-thirds of the global population still without Internet access. The possibility of connecting those four billion people to the rest of the world has led to a big scramble by tech firms and helped fuel sky-high valuations for investors’ favorite apps and gadgets.

Device makers in China and India are pumping out low-price handsets, while Google Inc. and Facebook have captured attention with their work on Internet-beaming, mechanized drones and high-altitude balloons.

In Ms. Sumarni’s small village about two hours west of Jakarta by car and rural areas all across the world, the reality is less sanguine. Social barriers beyond the control of companies are keeping people offline. The race to bring the next billion online could take longer than many executives think.

“It’s glamorous to say: ‘I’m going to the far reaches of the earth to connect people.’ But there are so many people who could technically access the Web but are not,” says Ann Mei Chang, a former senior director of emerging markets at Google and now executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab, part of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Just 16% of Indonesia’s 250 million people access the Internet regularly, according to the World Bank. The hurdles include low wages, lack of digital literacy and a dearth of compelling content that feels relevant. Many reluctant users can afford the Internet but wonder why they should bother.

Ms. Sumarni’s journey to the Internet took three years of hand-holding and financial support from Ruma, a Jakarta-based startup company that tries to pull people out of poverty through the use of mobile devices.

Ruma showed Ms. Sumarni how to run a business from her basic phone by selling airtime, lent her money to upgrade to her first smartphone and provided lessons on how to use it. Before then, she never aspired to be connected. She didn’t see the point.

Read the entire article in the Wall Street Journal.