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Getting the next billion online: why emerging markets need a lighter internet [Tech4Africa]

There are so many high profile initiatives to bring free or affordable internet to countries in the developing world that it’s difficult to keep up. Truth be told though, none of them are likely to provide the kind of ubiquitous, high-speed internet that many of us take for granted. They’re also a fair way away from being able to provide internet access to everyone all the time. There is still, in other words, a serious case to be made for a lighter internet.

Think about it: in South Africa, just over 50% of the population has internet access. Of those, the vast majority primarily access the internet using mobile phones. And that in turn almost always means buying mobile data.

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Thing is, data is expensive. Assuming you earn a salary of around R3 000 a month (comfortably above the national minimum wage), you have to work around 18 hours to be able to afford a 500mb data plan.

What that means is that even if people can afford smartphones, they’re often reduced to using them like dumb phones, albeit dumb phones with big, colourful screens. Given a choice between buying that data, which let’s not forget opens up worlds of information to you, and feeding yourself what would you do?

If the internet is to be the society changing tool we know it can be, then it simply can’t be rationed the way it currently is among South Africa’s low income earners.

As Karin Geve Isdahl of Swedish software giant Opera, told the Tech4Africa audience on Wednesday, until internet access becomes free and ubiquitous our best hope probably lies in making sure that when people go online, they need to use as little data as possible.

Now given that Opera’s whole business model relies on providing people with data-light experiences, that’s hardly surprising. But its own successes show just how much demand there still is for these kinds of service in the developing world.

Its Opera Mini browser, for instance, has more than 200-million active users, when you include those on feature phones. In Africa, it’s most popular in South Africa and Nigeria, both countries where the next big wave of internet adoption will come from the bottom of the income pyramid.

Hardly surprising then that it’s hoping to grow its user base to more than 350-million users within the next two years, putting it on par with where Twitter is now.

Now you might argue that with people spending an increasingly large amount of time on apps, focusing on browser compression is counter-intuitive. But even in the most developed markets, people still spend 15% of their time in browsers.

That’s not to say that Opera hasn’t thought about the app space. Earlier this year, it launched Opera Max, a service that runs in the background of your phone and claims to cut down the amount of data used by some of the world’s most popular apps by an average of 50%.

Nearly 4-billion people around the world still don’t have access to the internet, and when they do come online they’re going to value their data just as much, if not more than we do now.

The imperative for a light internet, not just a light web, is clear.

Of course, using less data can’t be the only solution.

“If you work at big telcos, go back to your bosses and tell them to make data cheaper,” Isdahl joked. It’s what most customers wish they would do. But in a round about way, everyone using less data could be to their benefit.

Data isn’t just a concern for consumers. It’s affects mobile operators to. Much as they like the revenue they get from you every time you buy data, their infrastructure can only cope with so much and they may well soon hit a point where the increase in data traffic is outstripping what mobile networks are capable of.

It’s therefore to their benefit that people use a data-light internet on their mobile devices. If nothing else, it’ll decrease one of the major incentives for people to move over to other forms of internet access.

Opera was founded on the principle that “access to the internet should be everyone’s right,” but if we’re really serious about giving the next billion (or five-billion) online, then it can’t just be about infrastructure and cheap devices. They’re important yes, but it’s clear that a light internet has to play a major role.

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