In the last five years more than 1 billion people worldwide have gained access to mobile data services. As mobile network operators have continued to expand their reach, more and more people have gained access to what we now consider an essential tool for living – the internet.
However, not all access is granted equally. Whether or not an individual has fast and secure access to the online services they need can vary wildly depending on economics, geography, infrastructure and the role network operators choose to play. It’s the reason why 1GB of mobile data will set you back an average of $27.41 in Malawi, while in India it can cost as little as $0.09, owing largely to the high level of mobile network operators competing for customers in the region. It is why a minimum salary employee in Nigeria would have to work a whole day to afford 1GB of data, but one in the United States would only have to spend just a little more than a working hour. One of the easiest comparisons to draw from the available data is that the cost of data tends to drop as the number of networks in a country increases. Of course, the 30,000% difference between the cheapest data price and the most expensive is very closely linked to infrastructure and local economies, but the responsibility to provide access to the internet also rests at the feet of the “gatekeepers” themselves – the mobile network operators. I’d argue that it falls to network operators to bridge the digital divide as far as technologically possible, providing easy access to at least the essential, basic services that we’ve all come to rely heavily on.
Magnifying the digital gap
The COVID-19 pandemic magnified this need, creating environments – particularly in emerging markets – where access to essential online services became more a matter of social responsibility than sales and marketing. People around the world became more dependent on the internet than ever before. This disproportionately impacted developing markets such as Brazil or South Africa, where the digital gap was wider and users were dependent on top-ups and mobile data allowances.
Online search data gathered by Upstream’s Zero-D platform from March 2020 to May 2020 highlights beyond doubt the need for fast, secure affordable online services in emerging markets. In Brazil, the term “internet gratis” (free internet) accounted for 43% of online searches, surpassed only by searches for “Facebook” as individuals tried to connect and stay in touch with one another online. Perhaps this was due to people’s inability to afford data as their incomes were impacted by the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Or perhaps it simply made it more difficult for them to physically buy data top-ups as stores brought down their shutters.
Perhaps more alarmingly, even before the COVID-19 outbreak the number one search term in South Africa was “How to get free data”. Following the outbreak, that search term was superseded by terms like “what is coronavirus?” and “when are schools opening?”. Not only does this highlight a surprising demand for free internet access in South Africa generally, but it demonstrates a desperate need for vital information pertaining to health, welfare and education during a time of national crisis.
Mobile network operators stepping up
The internet is quickly becoming society’s primary vehicle for getting things done. We apply for driver’s licenses and passports online. Our governments share public service information online. Even our job searches and applications for higher education begin online. Of course this has many advantages but, like the pandemic, it also shines a light on “access inequality” and the digital gap that’s widening in certain countries. This is a problem for sure, but it could also be an opportunity in disguise for mobile network operators who are willing to alter their approach and create new services to get more people online.
At a time when many individuals in developing nations are finding internet access difficult, creating the means for them to get connected in an affordable – or even free – way, is the perfect way to cultivate customer loyalty. What can start out as a free package to get people utilising government services, accessing educational portals or even “lite” versions of apps like Facebook – all of which consume very little data – might lead to opportunities for cross selling and digital sales as local network infrastructure grows.
Put simply, the mobile network operators who are willing to provide essential services now will be the ones who retain a higher share of the market as access to the internet in these regions becomes better established.