Is There a Ceiling on Internet Users?

Facebook and Netflix are finding it tough to recruit new people who want what they are offering. At least for now, their numbers of users are shrinking.

There are complex reasons for their growth lulls, and we’ll learn more later today when Meta, Facebook’s parent company, releases its quarterly financial report. This edition of the newsletter is about a challenge they and other globe-spanning internet companies share: the untapped potential in the billions of people who are not online at all.

More than four in 10 people in the world, which works to more than three billion people, do not use the internet at home or on their phones, according to the most recently available estimates from the World Bank and United Nations, from 2019.

In some of the world’s most-populated countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria, a majority of people are not online.

Even after a major surge in online access in India in recent years, roughly 60 percent of Indians don’t use the internet. Close to half of the people in Indonesia — the world’s fourth-largest country — aren’t online, either. For comparison, about 10 percent of Americans and one-quarter of Brazilians aren’t online.

The tech world is not ignoring the gap between the internet haves and have-nots, and the number of disconnected people is shrinking. But as digital services strive to grab even more users, their ambitions are held back by so many still being offline or having subpar service that prevents bingeing on Netflix, surfing YouTube or madly scrolling through Instagram.

There is no silver bullet to the complex economic, cultural, technical and policy barriers to bringing more of the world’s citizens online. Advocates of expanding internet use say that being connected is an economic engine and increasingly a necessity of modern life. An internet connection is also a minimum condition for internet companies to reach potential customers.

I’m not saying that if 100 percent of the 1.4 billion people in India suddenly used the internet, then they would all become Netflix subscribers. Now that Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix may be close to saturation in the U.S., they have all made India a priority. But their growth is capped because they can only reach at most the roughly 600 million Indians who are online.

(A note about China, which has the world’s largest concentration of internet users: The country blocks many popular foreign digital services, making China out of reach for Netflix, Facebook, Google and others.)

Ana Maria Rodriguez, a research analyst with the advocacy group the Alliance for Affordable Internet, said that official figures of online users might drastically underestimate how many people don’t have regular access to the internet, can’t afford to go online often, have poor service or some combination thereof.

She said that the World Bank and U.N. counted an internet user as anyone who had gone online at least once in the past three months. By their figures, two-thirds of people in Colombia were online as of 2019. But research from the Alliance for Affordable Internet found that only one-quarter of Colombians had “meaningful” access, which included consistent online connections at relatively quick speeds.

Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other tech companies and executives have various projects to help expand internet access or tailor their apps for countries where millions of people may be going online for the first time. Rodriguez, whose group receives funding from tech companies, said that doing even more could help billions of people — and corporations’ bottom lines.

“It’s in their interest to reach these people,” Rodriguez told me, referring to the global internet companies.

When I first started to write about technology more than a decade ago, I would regularly ask executives if there was a limit to their growth because so many people weren’t online, and service stank for many people, even in rich countries like the U.S. I got a lot of blank stares.

Maybe they were right not to make the issue a high priority. Many more people have been connected in those years, and internet service has improved in most countries. Facebook and Spotify are not experts in building mobile internet towers or tearing down social and financial obstacles to getting more people online.

But we’re entering a period in which the easy growth is gone for many successful internet companies. To keep reaching more people, they may need to think differently about the billions who have yet to be connected.