Berners-Lee Wants Free, Low-Bandwidth Mobile Data

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, generally credited with founding the World Wide Web, today used his Nokia World (s nok) keynote address for outlining an agenda of increased global Internet access in a net-neutral setting. Berners-Lee called for everyone to have free or minimal-cost, low-bandwidth access to data and alluded that Internet access could be an equal, or perhaps more important investment, than hunger relief in emerging areas of the world.

Given Nokia’s reach in developing markets where data access is scarce or prohibitively expensive, I found Berners-Lee to be an excellent choice of speaker. He stressed to developers that they should not only follow web standards with their apps, but should find ways to code bandwidth efficiency, going so far as to say that SMS is the least efficient and most expensive method.

By reducing data costs, Berners-Lee envisions a world that’s far more connected than it is today. “Twenty percent of the world’s population uses the web,” he said, “yet 80 percent of the world has access to a cellular data signal.” The cost of that access simply isn’t falling as fast as the cost of improved handset technology, Berners-Lee pointed out. “When a $10 phone you can afford has a browser, it’s truly a shame that a data plan is considered a luxury.”

In a perfect world, low-bandwidth data might be free, but in the real world, carriers are, of course, for-profit. Berners-Lee shared additional concerns regarding the future of the mobile web, including net-neutrality, privacy and the responsibility that third parties have when handling personal data. All are valid concerns, but I was most struck by the grand plan for a fully connected planet, even when there are other pressing challenges. “Getting water, health care and food to various areas are considered important by governments and then web access might be next,” Berners-Lee said.  “No, sharing information is needed first — how not to get AIDS or sharing other solutions to problems might be a better investment.”

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