Join the Conversation log-in

Monday, May 17th, 2010 - 2 comments

Mobile internet access in developing countries

Is mobile internet access in the developing world a viable option? It’s time to explore new avenues of technology.

I have been leery of getting behind web-based applications for social marketing in developing countries – designing elaborate health information systems, using information and communication technologies to improve heathcare, mobilizing social networks. Broadband connectivity for internet access is spotty at best, and the promise of the internet for billions is still a few years away (2015?) if projects like the Connect Africa Initiative, Connect the Caribbean and other projects to connect the unconnected fulfill their mission to make affordable connectivity accessible to all. Then there are the costs of adoption by large numbers of people, especially among the poor. Mobile phones using SMS have been the interim answer for technology-based, scalable health projects designed for people rather than government agencies, NGOs and research projects.

In a report in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Tom Wright pulls together a set of facts and practices that has me thinking that maybe it is time to start considering mobile web for social change in emerging markets. Mirroring, or perhaps even eclipsing, a trend among poorer people in developed countries, some analysts see mobile access as the primary way in which people in emerging markets will connect with the internet. Indonesia, Egypt and Russia are the strongest growth markets for mobile internet browser maker Opera. Southeast Asia is the largest market for mobile advertising with Indonesia alone just trailing the US.

Wright points to decreasing costs, increased bandwidths (faster connection speeds) and improvements in browser technology (easier navigation and file compression) as factors in the growth of mobile access. For many, browsing on a handheld device is a cheaper alternative to buying a PC or paying for home internet service. As a result, email and social networking sites are now in play from a tactical pov. The estimates are that high-performance browsers on cellphones will move from the current 76 million to 700 million in the next five years. Right now, you can download Opera Mini for free an even cheap handsets – as 200,000 people do right now daily.

It is not time to move away from SMS as a critical feature of social marketing efforts that want to achieve behavior change at scale. It is time, however, to start talking with early adopters about how they and their friends may be using, or contemplating, mobile internet access and exploring ways in which the new technology can be used to speed adoption of health behaviors, products and services. And your assumptions about how connected the world around you really is may need some fact-checking as well.

This blog-post was originally posted at On Social Marketing and Social Change.

The views expressed in this blog-post are solely those of the author.

Comments (2)

Wednesday 19th May, 2010, 1:32am

Great to read this! It's very important to think carefully about who really will be able to use mobile internet. Access is one issue, as you explain above, but the pricing and structuring of packages by mobile networks is another one.
As you point out, access involves quite a big shift, but demand is huge and there will be big rewards for telecoms who go this route. Pricing is another key issue.
I believe that networks' pricing structures of data plans is a good area for activism or pressure from civil society and NGOs working for universal access. It always strikes me when I travel to the US how difficult and expensive it is to get even vaguely affordable data access on a prepaid sim card. In contrast, we have reasonable rates for prepaid data in South Africa (although the rates are more expensive than landline broadband). Mobile internet starts to become viable for development projects when there are enough basic feature phones in circulation and people can get relatively cheap data plans on prepaid i.e. without credit checks etc.
I'd like to add something to your point about mobile internet being cheaper than PCs - data is a far cheaper alternative to SMS. In South Africa a message on MXit (mobile IM platform) costs less than 1c (ZAR), whereas an SMS costs about 90c.
Mobile internet is an absolutely viable platform for urban youth in SA -- that's if you can work out a way to get their attention! My experience of m4Lit, a teen literacy development project in South Africa is also posted on this site
This is not yet a universally accessible medium, but as long as projects are planned accordingly, mobile internet is an approach with huge potential.

Leave a reply

Name - required


Email - required, never published




Guest Editor

R. Craig Lefebvre

Professor, George Washington Uni.


R. Craig Lefebvre, PhD is an architect and designer of public health and social change programs. He is an Adjunct Professor of Prevention and Community Health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Most recently he was the Chief Maven at Population Services International (PSI) where he led PSI's technical teams in capacity-building, HIV, malaria, child survival and clean water programs, reproductive health, and social marketing as well as its research and metrics functions.

Register for Newsletter
Conversation Starters
Tag Cloud
Related Blog-Posts
Host a Conversation