At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

Mobile Internet in the Developing World

Internet cafe in South Africa

Even though the mobile internet is growing fast in the developing world, its uses are often limited. Internet cafes are still needed and in demand. (Image by Araba Sey)

Digital analysts expect to see a billion or more new online users in the coming years, with more of these users accessing the internet via mobile devices instead of through desktop PCs.

Lower-cost smart phones and data-enabled “feature phones” are driving this era of the mobile internet.

Yet, for all the anticipation around closing the gaps in the digital divide through inexpensive mobile phones, Jonathan Donner, a researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group (TEM) at Microsoft Research, says there are persistent limitations with the current mobile internet, and there’s an on-going need for public internet venues in the developing world.

“We’re at this moment where what has happened in the past with mobile phones, may not be predictive of what is going to happen next,” Donner said in an address to Change, a University of Washington group focused on exploring how technology can improve the lives of underserved populations in low-income regions.

The first wave of the mobile boom in the developing world brought basic telephone service to people. The second wave is providing internet access to broader populations. But “mobile-only” and “mobile-primary” users of the internet are often unable to access the full potential of the internet, Donner says.

Jonathan Donner is a researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group (TEM) at Microsoft Research

Jonathan Donner is a researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group (TEM) at Microsoft Research. (Image by Jurgen Banda-Hansmann)

Terms such as “surfing” and “browsing” reflect an unlimited access to the cornucopia of information available when people have broadband and 3G or higher connections. Not so for the developing world where people are often still paying per bit for data or by air time for slow downloads of pages on mobile devices.

Donner provided examples of how individuals in the developing world are using cell phones to grow their small businesses. Cell phones also play an important role in citizen journalism. But the students Donner and his research associates studied in Cape Town, South Africa, continue to frequent neighborhood libraries, larger central libraries, and some cybercafés to access the internet.

Public access internet venues allow low-income users free use, more bandwidth, printers, and bigger screens for school research assignments. It means students endure long waits to use a handful of computers in a library, but they still come.

What will mobile internet users in the developing world need for the future? International groups such as the Broadband Commission are already tackling important infrastructure issues such as expanding mobile coverage in regions. Donner discussed additional considerations that will need to be addressed for developing world mobile internet users:

  • Mobile internet users will need more efficient ways to build an online presence and manage interactions on the internet via their mobile devices. Microentrepreneurs, for example, are expected to have a web presence where they can advertise and sell their products and interact with customers, but it’s a challenge to manage web pages, customer orders and respond in a timely manner to buyers entirely on one’s cell phone; especially as air time or data charges are clocked.
  • Mobile internet devices are not a replacement for public access internet locations such as libraries. Students require multi-device scenarios of both cell phones and PCs to adequately research and learn on the internet.
  • The internet will need to become responsive to hundreds of languages as a billion new users gain access via mobile devices. While U.S. consumers might be weary of automated voice attendants when they call the bank or stores, interactive voice response (IVR) technology has enormous potential to open the internet to populations with low literacy rates or language barriers.

A person with a basic data-enabled phone and someone with a smartphone and a PC can both connect to the internet, Donner says. “But it’s not always the same internet. There’s still much work to do to make affordable ‘mobile-centric’ internet experiences more useful and more inclusive for billions of people around the world.”

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This post is categorized in: Politics, Society

About Shelly Ngo

Shelly Ngo is a writer and graduate student at the University of Washington's Communication Leadership program. For 18 years, she worked in marketing and communication at the international relief and development organization, World Vision. Shelly maintains a personal blog at:

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