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The internet’s new billion

New web users — in countries like Brazil and China — are changing the culture of the internet.

Internet growth, Brazil
Thiago Borges, 24, manages a "LAN house," or cybercafe, where low-income residents of Rio de Janeiro pay about 80 cents an hour for internet access. (Erik German/GlobalPost)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The harried mother had little wish to visit an internet cafe with two squirmy boys in tow, but she said there was no choice.

New to this potholed neighborhood on the city’s northern edge, Fabina da Silva, 31, needed to enroll her sons in school. Registering online was the only way.

“If it wasn’t a necessity, I wouldn’t be here,” da Silva said on a recent afternoon as her 6-year-old, Lucas, thumped his toy Sponge Bob on the mouse pad beside her. “Nowadays, internet in Brazil is a necessity.”

Brazil has long been a bellwether nation for emerging-market internet trends and it’s riding a wave that will soon sweep the globe. The newest billion people to venture online are doing so in developing countries rather than North America or Europe.

And whether those newcomers are getting online for fun or because they must, they’re doing so en masse. For businesses nimble enough to serve markets as diverse as Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia, the shift promises a staggering number of new customers.

But internet trend-watchers say there’s more at stake than the emergence of a worldwide class of digital consumers. The new users are changing the culture of the internet itself. Researchers say the web as it was originally, if idealistically, conceived — a largely free, monolingual space where a shared digital culture prevailed — may soon be a distant memory. And it’s happening remarkably fast.

“Potentially explosive” is how Marcos Aguiar describes the growth. He’s a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group’s Sao Paulo office who co-authored a report released in September called “The Internet’s New Billion.” It concludes the number of web users in developing-world “BRICI” countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia — will jump from 610 million this year to 1.2 billion by 2015.

When the internet crossed the billion-user threshold just five years ago, the developed world commanded a 60-40 majority online, according to the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union. Today, that proportion has roughly reversed.

The new users are younger, poorer and more numerous than ever before, BCG’s analysts said, and increasing numbers will need web access and won't be able to afford broadband in their living room.

As Fabina da Silva pecked away on a keyboard to register her sons for school, she was in many ways typical of low-income Brazilian users. Those who don’t have web access at home often pay small fees to use ad hoc cybercafes known here as “LAN houses.” Many began as rooms full of connected computers, or local area networks, for multi-player gaming, but their customer base has since broadened.

In India, those following the trend say a huge portion of the new billion will enter the web via mobile devices.

“If you look at our broadband figures in India, it’s quite pathetic,” said Sunil Abraham, director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a think tank in Bangalore. “And less than 1 percent of the population has ever accessed the internet.”

But recently, many Indian telecommunication firms have begun giving out free data plans with their mobile devices — a move Sunil said will instantly send millions of Indians onto the internet. “The moment an end user acquires a smart phone they become a data user because they’re not paying for it,” he said. “But they’re not coming onto the internet like you and I know.”

Instead, phone companies only provide access to a few sites, such as Wikipedia and Facebook Zero, a stripped-down mobile version of the social networking site that omits photos but allows messaging and status updates. “They’re coming onto a network that, from the beginning, is a complete walled garden,” he said.

The new walls dividing regions of the internet aren’t likely to stop there. Even as more users join the web worldwide, they are increasingly separated by language. What the nearly 400 million users in China experience as the internet is vastly different than the web surfed by Americans. Much of the software and websites on the Chinese web are produced domestically in the local language. That’s also how it works in Russia and Indonesia.