Even among poor, mobile Web is big in Africa

Eighty-seven million people in Nigeria browse the Internet on mobile phones, according to figures from the country's telecom regulator that confirm that even among low-income people, the mobile Web is big in Africa.

Nigeria is Africa's largest telecom market by investment and subscription, followed by South Africa and Kenya. A just-released report from the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) on April Internet usage backs up findings from other sources showing that mobile Web use is widespread, including for people in low-income households, many of them living below the poverty line.

About 25 percent of the people who use mobile phones to browse the Web in Nigeria, more than 22 million users, are from low-income households, according to an NCC official.

A study this year conducted by mobile surveying company GeoPoll and market research firm World Wide Worx found that 40 percent of the population in major telecom markets in Africa -- including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghanda, Uganda and Kenya -- browse the Web via mobile phones. Africans are turning to the mobile Web mainly because of poor landline infrastructure, which makes connections through desktops difficult.

The main driver for mobile Internet usage, however, is the declining price for data bundles in many African countries, now priced as low as $5 for a month. The declining cost of Internet-enabled phones is also said to have contributed to the great number of Africans now accessing the Internet.

Earlier this year, for example, Nokia unveiled an Internet-enabled phone priced at $29 and preinstalled with the Opera Mini Browser and Facebook Messenger.

For many of Africa's new mobile users, the Internet means access to instant messaging, a cheaper substitute to expensive SMS. And for mobile phone operators, the provision of data services is the only sure way to sustain operations in the face of the flattening growth curve for voice communications in the region's more mature markets.

"Mobile broadband is fast growing in the region because even operators have realized that more people especially in rural areas want to communicate through social media as it is cheaper than to make calls. This is why we have seen the coming up of 3G and 4G networks on the market," said Edith Mwale, telecom analyst at Africa Center of ICT Development.

Over the past few years, African governments including Zambia and Tanzania have succeeded in pushing mobile phone service providers to connect their networks to remote rural areas in order to meet the growing demand for inclusive and effective communication. As a way of enticing mobile operators to expand their services to rural areas, the Tanzanian government early last year subsidized the building of networks. Among other incentives, the Tanzanian government also waived the cost of importing telecom equipment.

This follows unwillingness by ISPs to expand services to rural areas. They claimed that it could take years to recoup their investment.

"Traditional Internet Service Providers have failed to extend their services to rural areas resulting in telecom operators taking over the market," said Andrew Makanya, managing director at Internet Solutions Zambia, a telecom service provider.

Michael Malakata

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