The Internet: Cat videos, games and instant messaging. Anything else?
Well, yes. In Uganda, farmers use it to identify and fight rare crop diseases. In India, fishermen at sea use it to find out at which harbor their catch will get the best price. In Ghana, it creates jobs for professionals who write software or process insurance claims from the United States.
Whether it's in the developing or developed world, the Internet is one of the most powerful forces to transform the global economy.
However, there's a catch. The famous claim by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the Internet will make the world "flat," because it will smooth out the differences between rich and poor, has not been realized — yet.
In reality, there are still a lot of lumps and bumps around. There's a name for this lumpiness; it's called the Digital Divide. This is not a glib label. It's the barrier holding back economic development. It ultimately could translate into economic misery. We at Samsung often witness this problem firsthand: We have more than 270,000 employees in 79 countries and close economic ties with most markets around the world.
As the world tackles this problem, we must not underestimate its scale. By the end of 2014, nearly 3 billion people will use the Internet, according to a forecast by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations.
Looking at this figure the other way, you could say the majority of people — more than 4 billion — still cannot reap the benefits of the Internet.
But let's look on the bright side. A mobile revolution is happening that is rapidly spreading online access in the developing world.
In many ways, this revolution has the potential to allow emerging markets to leapfrog developed economies. Just take the example of mobile banking systems, such as MPesa, which are transforming the economies of Kenya and other countries in Southern and Eastern Africa. In comparison, the banking systems of many Western countries appear to be quite antiquated.
By the end of 2014, according to an ITU estimate, there will be nearly 7 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions — about one for every person alive. Of course, this mobile world is lumpy, too. In the developed world, more than three-quarters (84 percent) of all people have a mobile broadband subscription.
In the developing world, where half the population lives in rural areas, it is just more than 20 percent. That's already a huge success; four years ago, it was a mere 4.4 percent. The study also points out that even in Africa — the least connected continent — mobile Internet access is expected to reach nearly 19 percent by the end of 2014, an increase of 8 percent since last year.
But those are enough numbers. What do they mean in real life? They demonstrate that the world now has the technology and is about to get the connectivity to bridge the digital divide.
That's not enough, though. Digital devices cost money, and digital skills need to be taught — and learned. We believe that companies can play a key role to help kick-start digital development and smooth the lumps and bumps of our digital world.
Three years ago, Samsung started an experiment with our Solar Powered Internet School. We refurbished 12-meter-long shipping containers and equipped them with a 50-inch electronic board, laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi-enabled webcams. The schools are then operated by solar power via flexible, thin film solar panels, so that they can run for nine hours a day.
Such schools are now helping transform the lives of youngsters such as Lefa at Phomolong Secondary School in South Africa. For Lefa and her friends, these smart schools are changing the way we look and interact with the global community.
To date, there are 380 Samsung Smart Schools around the world. In regions especially in need of help, Samsung is helping find high-level solutions that meet the specific needs of local schoolchildren. For more developed regions, the Smart Schools initiative is helping bring technology to students so that they're able to access the Internet in the very same way you might be reading this article right now.
We hope that these efforts can help bridge the pertinent connectivity gap around the world, but make no mistake: The digital divide still exists. As of now, Finland is the only country where Internet access has been declared a basic human right.
Most of the world is nowhere close. Let's get to work.
Digital divide image by Beluza Ludmila via Shutterstock.