The world needs America's high-speed help

The Obama administration's new initiative, ConnectHome, is intended to accelerate broadband adoption among low-income Americans. It's an important step in addressing an issue with significant economic, social and educational implications in the United States. Globally, however, broadband's outlook is far less promising and will require America's tech and mobile sectors to rise to the challenge.

In announcing ConnectHome, President Obama pointed out that those "who could benefit most from the latest technology are the least likely to have it," while declaring that access to the web "is not a luxury, it's a necessity." Consider that in developing countries — where only 35 percent of people have Internet access — a 10-percent increase in broadband penetration will result in a 1.35-percent increase in GDP, according to the World Bank, and it starts to become clear why expanding connectivity is so integral to the world's economic vitality.

A store assistant, right, demonstrates a Micromax Informatics Ltd. smartphone to customers at the company's Micromax World store in New Delhi, India.
Prashanth Vishwanathan | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A store assistant, right, demonstrates a Micromax Informatics Ltd. smartphone to customers at the company's Micromax World store in New Delhi, India.

In developing nations across Latin America, Africa and Asia, broadband access remains prohibitively expensive. Handset-based mobile broadband is the most affordable and therefore most commonly used service in developing countries. For consumers in these markets, the cost of a mobile device represents the biggest barrier to internet connectivity.

Income, of course, is a major factor in the lack of smartphone ownership in developing countries — but the cost of devices is also problematic. The familiar practice of wireless carriers subsidizing devices for customers who sign long contracts is largely unheard of outside the U.S., which means customers in these countries typically must pay full price for an Internet-connected phone.

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The United States has always been a driver of innovation. Every day, American companies develop new cutting-edge technologies intended to further enhance our quality of life. The volume and scope of features available in our most high-end devices is mind-boggling. And as our high-end technology improves, the quality of our entry-level technology rises in direct proportion.

Today, we can build incredibly advanced devices, but we can also build basic devices at incredibly affordable prices. The United States can and should lead the way in expanding internet connectivity in developing countries by developing quality Internet-accessible devices at lower prices, and supporting efforts to expand broadband infrastructure across Latin America, Africa and Asia in order to drive down the cost of service.

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Of course, access is not simply a matter of affordability. Awareness and understanding also come into play. As innovators, it is incumbent on America's tech industry to show consumers in developing nations what is possible and to educate them about these technologies and their applications. That means first educating ourselves about the specific challenges unique to these regions and brainstorming creative ways our technology can solve those problems.

This is not simply a matter of altruism. A rising tide lifts all boats. Expanded Internet connectivity in developing countries will be a catalyst for economic growth. These emerging markets will provide new opportunities for America's private sector, fueling an acceleration of innovation that will benefit us all.

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If the United States is a superpower, it is not only because of our military might. As much as anything, it is our ingenuity that makes us leaders. Let's put that ingenuity to good use beyond our own borders.

Commentary by Flavio Mansi, chief commercial officer at PCS Wireless, a New Jersey-based global distributor of new and pre-owned wireless devices; and chief executive officer of Posh Mobile, a developer and manufacturer of affordable Android smartphones and tablets. Mansi previously was president of Qualcomm Latin America, where he helped shepherd Latin America's migration to the 3G network.